Saturday, 14 May 2011

Review of Zoo City

Title: Zoo City
Author: Lauren Beukes
Genre: Adult, Urban Fantasy, Sci-Fi
Age restriction? YES - rated R. This is a gritty and raw book, dealing with adult themes. Not for sensitive or young readers.
Series: None
Pages: 416
Publisher: Angry Robot; Original edition (December 28, 2010)

WINNER of: The Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best Sci Fi book of 2010.


 Incredible and virtually flawless. Buy and read ASAP!

Description: Zinzi has a talent for finding lost things. To save herself, she’s got to find the hardest thing of all: the truth.

I have the full description up on an earlier post, if you want to check it out, and I also blogged about this South African author winning the Artur C. Clarke Award (which is a HUGE deal!) and how inspiring I found that.

However, I want to make it clear that I'm not just lovin' on this book coz it was written by my South African countrywoman, although that is awesome and inspiring in itself. Not at all. This is a mind-blowing read, although I'll admit that placing it in the Sci Fi genre seems a bit odd to me, since this is a textbook example of excellent Dark Urban/Contemporary Fantasy in my opinion - one of precious few!

Review Summary: I have rarely read a book that I so thoroughly enjoyed and admired - and this comes from someone with a degree in Literature working postgrad in Classics!

Full Review: Zinzi December is in a heap of trouble, and not just with the police. She's got a guilty conscience, gets forced by poverty and desperation into working for an even guiltier group of people, trying to uncover a guilty secret before the guilty get her killed or locked up.

Zoo City is not only an incredible adventure and first-rate Urban Fantasy, it also regards issues of prejudice, muti (South African traditional medicine controversial for its occasional use of human body parts), substance abuse, immigration, poverty, crime and punishment and what people are willing do for success and money. However, it regards these issues with so light a hand that you almost don't notice yourself thinking about these things until a few days later.

Using a first person present tense narrative is something that takes guts in spades, something which very few writers can pull of successfully, but Lauren Beukes rises to the challenge with seemingly effortless ease and grace. I think that the frequent breaks in the narrative by way of newspaper reports, magazine articles and other informative pieces provide just the correct amount of distance and explanation to keep the story fresh and fast-paced without feeling overdone or fake. The present tense gives this story a feeling of immediacy and urgency, while the first person draws you right into the thoughts, secrets and actions of the protagonist, Zinzi - and what a brilliant protagonist she is!

Zinzi is an amazingly complete and compelling character - smart, intelligent, cynic and brave, she's flawed, in some ways very deeply so, but these very flaws strengthen her credibility. Zinzi grew up comfortably as a member of one of South Africa's emerging black upper-middle class, to go to university and become a respected journalist and develop a nasty drug habit. However, as she says, that is her Former Life, before she had Sloth.

In this alternative version of Johannesburg in 2011, those who have committed a crime find their guilt manifested in the form of a symbiotic animal magically tied to them (or at least, that's one theory; the appearance of aposymbiots is rather recent, still being studied and not fully understood) and granting them minor, mostly useless gifts, called shavi.

The animals are referred to as mashavi and with an Animal comes the Undertow - a cloud of blackness that will sooner or later swallow and/or obliterate the Animalled person. You can never be certain of when the Undertow will take you, for take you it will, eventually. The only thing you can be certain about is that if your Animal dies, the Undertow will come for almost instantaneously; yet while your Animal remains alive you're still living on borrowed time.

Some of the examples of shavi mentioned includes being able to find the scene of a murder, being charming, shielding from magic and inciting or heightening lust slightly. Zinzi's mashavi is Sloth, and her shavi is to see the connections people have to their "lost things" - small objects of personal value to the person in question that may or may not be currently lost.

Zinzi can see either the person with a cloud of the objects important to that person tied to them in a way which she describes as "a thread" between the person and the objects. So, it follows that when touching an object that's important to someone, she can feel the "thread" pulling the object back to the person, and then it's just a matter of following the sometimes frustratingly frail thread and finding the person who lost something for some quick cash and the ability to eat that night.

Now "Animalled" and therefore marked as a criminal and possibly dangerous to the rest of society, struggling to find work, acceptance and absolution, Zinzi's living in the most dangerous of neighbourhoods surrounded by the most desperate denizens of society and making ends meet (and trying to repay her drug debts) by writing letters for 419 scams and hoping to stumble across things people lost that are valuable enough that the person would pay her for returning it.

This is how she ends up being suspected of murder, being contacted by dodgy individuals working for a huge-name music producer with a questionable past and looking for a teenaged superstar that no one must know has gone missing. As if that's not enough, her lover just found out that his wife and children didn't die in the DRC civil war, as he had thought, with the always-present additional threat of the Undertow.

I do have some very slight criticisms, mainly because I'm a detail-oriented control freak: I'd have liked to know what exactly the aposymbiosis is - is it a manifestation of guilt? If it is, why is it that some sociopaths who feel no guilt over their crimes still find themselves Animalled? And if it's not, why is it that only those guilty of the most grievous of crimes have one? And who decides what makes up those crimes that deserve an Animal?

Also, why are all the Animals written in Capital Letters? I don't know about you, but when I see Capital Letters strewn around like that, I hear the words spoken in the booming voice of a Cecil B. Demille version of God, although I'm fully willing to admit that that is my own issue and has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the book. Still, it's a bit jarring to read about this one's Cobra and that one's Butterfly and that one's Hyena, etc. with constantly booming echoes.

I will also admit that I was at first slightly uncomfortable with the thought of a white woman writing the personal narrative of a black woman, especially in this society of ours in this time we find ourselves.

Lauren Beukes explains it beautifully and sensibly in a guest post for The World SciFi Blog, arguing that when we write, we are basically always writing the other, using our imagination to fill in the gaps of that which we didn't actually live and experience, but which our characters did.

This is a completely valid point of view which makes a lot of sense and which I fully support, although I myself would not yet feel comfortable writing in the voice of a black person in South Africa (which is most probably a personal failing!), given my historical and very often very largely invisible privileges that came with growing up white mostly in post-Apartheid South Africa (including but not limited to: being able to study by electricity, living in a house, never going to bed hungry, never having to go without blankets and sweaters and shoes winter because there just isn't money to buy it, etc. etc. which, unfortunately, is still the predominant experience of most South Africans in a society in which the chances of your suffering abject poverty increase dramatically the darker your skin is), but I truly admire Lauren for her braveness, integrity and dedication in worrying, in her words, more about whether Zinzi was Zinzi enough than worrying about whether she was black enough.

Despite these nitpicks, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It was not only a great read, it was a thoughtful read, without shoving its thoughtfulness down your throat or hitting you over the head with it at all. The writing, too, is beautifully crafted with some unexpectedly hilarious and unpretentiously sensitive and touching moments. The setting comes alive through Lauren Beukes' incredibly vivid descriptions and the slums of the city of Johannesburg almost becomes its own character in this book, which I found delightful (and envy-worthy! How many writers can do that, seriously?).

I don't know what else to say about without spoiling the book, so I'll stop here and just say: this book, although not for the overly sensitive or young, is amazing, if you're willing to deal with some hard facts of reality when reading. The characters are full and real, the setting is so familiar (at least to me :) ) and yet so filled with new and strange things that it remains eternally fascinating, and the story is a fast-paced edge-of-your-seat whirlwind which will keep the adrenaline pumping to the very last page. Also, I'd just like to add, I thought the ending was amazing. I'm hard pressed to think of another character that I loved and admired as much as I loved and admired Zinzi in those last couple of paragraphs.

Read it as soon as you possibly can - and please let me know what you thought of it! Even if it is months or years later and you absolutely hated it, I truly want to know.

This is a book I'll be reading again and again and again, and I hope the same is true for you.

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