Thursday, 6 October 2011

‘Zoo City’ – Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot)

If there’s a party going on then you can bet whatever you like that I won’t just be ‘fashionably late’, I’ll be horribly late and mostly because I’ve got completely lost trying to find my way there. Probably the most notable occasion where this happened was my cousin’s wedding when I found myself headed towards Wales when the reception itself took place just outside Reading...

It’s the same deal with books where, despite all my best intentions, I will always be the last person to read the ‘book of the moment’; the book that wins all the awards and has everyone going on about how great it is. When ‘The Lies of Locke Lamora’ was first published, my head was in a totally different book and I didn’t get round to it for a long time afterwards. Same deal with ‘The Name of the Wind’, I got there in the end but everyone else had long since moved on and was talking about something else. The hot release of the summer was ‘A Dance with Dragons’, have I managed to read it yet? I’ll give you a clue, the answer isn’t ‘yes’...
Which brings me round to ‘Zoo City’, a book that has done the rounds now and gets to have ‘Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award’ stamped on it’s cover. Another incredibly well received book that I hadn’t read yet and, true to form, once I got my hands on a copy it still took me several months to get round to reading it. Typical really...
I’ve read ‘Zoo City’ now though and my first thought upon finishing was that I really needed to read ‘Moxyland’ (Beukes’ other novel) as it’s clear I’ve been missing out on one hell of a writer here. No mincing words here, ‘Zoo City’ is a superb read.

Zinzi is a ‘Zoo’, a person who has committed a crime and has been magically attached to an animal familiar. That familiar must be taken care of (the alternative doesn’t is an agonising death in the ‘Undertow’) but the gifts it bestows can sometimes be worth it. Zinzi’s sloth familiar, for example, has helped her very good at finding lost items; a skill that supplements her more regular work (drafting scam emails) as she struggles to pay back the massive interest owed to her drug dealer.
Having a client die on Zinzi, just after the missing item has been found, is problematic to say the least; especially when the police confiscate her paycheck. It becomes even more problematic when that death leads to another job, finding the missing female twin (in a teen pop duo) for a reclusive music mogul. Zinzi hates ‘missing person’ jobs and will do whatever she can to avoid taking one on. This job in particular is about to remind Zinzi what she really hates about tracking down missing people. Dead bodies and sprays of gunfire is only the start of it...

This has been one of the more difficult  reviews that I’ve written for the blog so far and it’s for the simple reason that I enjoyed ‘Zoo City’ so much that I’ve had to work much harder to be objective about the book. Whether I’ve succeeded or not... well, lets see shall we? The bottom line though is that ‘Zoo City’ takes the term ‘compelling read’ to a whole new level; it’s a book that displays the criminal underclass in a stark, yet absorbing, way that I haven’t seen since I picked up William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’ for the first time. And that’s just the start of it.

‘Zoo City’ is a tough nut to crack though, at least initially, as Beukes only gives the reader what they need to get going to start off with. There’s also a heavy dose of African patois that does real wonders for the atmosphere but only served to remind me how utterly unfamiliar I am with the language. That’s not the books fault though. There are gaps to be filled (Zinzi’s past and the phenomenon of the ‘animalled’) but you’ve got to wait for Beukes to decide that now is the time to fill them, if at all. On the whole I liked this approach as you’re not overloaded with information and left free to take in the grimy yet somehow optimistic atmosphere surrounding the environs of Zoo City. There’s gunfire (I almost cried when the bear got shot...) and the worst side of human nature but there’s also families sticking together and making the best of it. There’s also a main character that seems to genuinely love the animal that she has been stuck. You can’t help but feel a little hopeful after reading bits like that. I also liked the semi-regular ‘academic pieces’ that cast the ‘animalled’ situation as a world-wide phenomenon and fleshed the scenery out that little bit more.

I guess the point I’d make here (going back a sentence) is that the reader is very much at Beukes’ mercy in terms of what she chooses to reveal. On the one hand it’s nice to know that Beukes trusts her readers enough not to have to go into too much detail. On the other hand though, I sometimes found myself wishing that there was a little more detail in terms of what we find out about Zinzi herself. There are moments in her life that I can understand her not wanting to revisit but she is so beautifully drawn (a hard exterior hiding someone looking for redemption) that I wanted to find out more about her. An infuriating position to be in but you can’t help but admire a writer who leaves you feeling like this.

The plot itself is classic Chandler with a case waiting to be solved by an investigator who not only doesn’t want to get involved but doesn’t really know what’s going on until the last chapter. The case itself seems innocent enough but as you move forwards it becomes clear that it is anything but. You’re led to believe that mere chance is leading Zinzi into several sticky situations but it all ties together neatly, by the end, and with an ease that had me wondering how I’d managed to miss all the little clues and pointers (of which there were many, it’s so easy to say that with hindsight…) There was one moment in particular that I never saw coming and it cast everything in a whole new light.

It goes without saying that these clues are sandwiched between the kind of nasty business that only a woman and her sloth can find themselves in. Beukes doesn’t go over the top here but still manages to show her readers, very clearly, just what Zinzi is up against and what the stakes are. This was only one of several techniques that kept those pages turning for me.

I suspect that I’m only scratching the surface of what Beukes wanted ‘Zoo City’ to say but I can only go on that first reading. There will be other readings though, ‘Zoo City’ is an absolutely stunning read and if you’re even later to the party than I am I’d suggest you pick up a copy right now and get reading.

Ten out Ten

1 comment:

Mieneke said...

Yes, read Moxyland asap, because it's just as absorbimg!! I completely adored both Beukes' books and for me she's this year's top newly discovered (by me, that is) author!