By Lauren Beukes
Reviewed by Alan Green
All the fun of a hardboiled detective story but set in an alternate South Africa where mysterious animals attach themselves to the guilty. The ‘animalled’ are a hated underclass, segregated in the ghetto of the title. There are no prizes for spotting the historical echoes that Lauren Beukes is trying to evoke.
Once you’ve got an animal there is no escape. You are regarded with suspicion by normal people because in their eyes you must have done something terrible to have earned your furry companion. You have to care for your animal however much you resent it because when it dies you will be dragged kicking and screaming into the Undertow (a mysterious abyss which appears to be more or less Hell).
There are some compensations. Having an animal also brings certain ‘gifts’; abilities that border on being low-level magic. For example our heroine Zinzi has a knack for finding things or people. A present from the sloth that she has to carry around. She’s happy to find things for a price but she usually turns down missing person cases because they tend to get messy. Unsurprisingly she finds herself hired to find someone and this case turns out to be much messier than her worst fears.
Zoo City works well as a detective story but it is the animal idea that makes this book something special. The sheer inventiveness of it is impressive but I love the way Beukes makes this wild idea seem so believable. She has come up with a concept that belongs in a magical fantasy realm and made it part of the real world. She’s thought about what the impact would be if this happened in our reality.
This novel won the prestigious Arthur C Clarke award and has been widely praised as a new and exciting take on the genre. I really enjoyed reading it. More importantly it’s a detective story where everyone with a murky past has a strange power and is forced to carry an animal around all day. The heroine has a sloth on her back. Isn’t that enough to make you at least curious?