Thursday, March 12, 2015

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes' 2010 novel "Zoo City" received quite a lot of attention when it came out and deservedly so. Ostensibly d a fantasy novel, the fantasy is so well grounded in a raw, contemporary, noirish Johannesburg, that the central conceit - that murderers summon up an "animal" from the undertow as a physical representation of their crime - becomes something that the reader soon takes on board, despite its strangeness. Part of that is South Africa itself, where black magic and the rituals that go with it are seen as being part and parcel of everyday life. The novel's feel is not a million miles from noirish films like "Angel Heart" set in a juju-obsessed New Orleans.

Zinzi December has a sloth for company. She is "animalled" and lives in Zoo City, a dangerous slum which has become home to others like herself. She has boyfriend Benoit, who has a mongoose for company and works as a security guard. Her own life is complicated - a drug habit means she's in perpetual debt to her dealers, and paying it off bit by bit by running email scams for them. Being "animalled" also gives her a psychic power, she can find lost things, and she makes her little money by doing this. When she goes to help an old lady find a ring that has gone down the toilet, it's just a normal job, until she comes back to find the old lady has been killed.

She's dragged into a world that she was trying to avoid - and gets asked to "find" a missing person, one half of twins - a pop music duo who are the latest big thing and are being moulded by a music industry big shot, the appropriately horrible Odi, who lives as a recluse yet has his fingers in lots of different pies. In her "former life" Zinzi was a journalist and she looks up her ex-beau Gio for help. Its a complex plotted novel with a large cast of peripheral characters who all have something to do with the conspiracy that's taking place, but its Zinzi, our feisty, flawed narrator who keeps things interesting. Animalled people are massively attached to their animal, so any separation from her sloth can cause great anxiety, yet at the same time, though some find it exotic, its also a sign of her outsider status.  And animals come in all varieties from tiny birds to a gigantic crocodile. It seems that these "familiars" reflect the status of the crime; in Zinzi's case, there are mitigating circumstances, her guilt is palpable, but sloth is a reflection of her conflicted personality - it sleeps most of the time, is sensitive and caring, yet has dangerous claws that can inflict damage - a bit like Zinzi herself.

Holding all of this together should be the hard part for any writer, but Beukes is adept at doing so. From the first few pages you can believe the world in which you've stepped. The fantastic tropes of the Undertow and the animals are explained away in a few extracted articles or academic papers, strewn throughout the narrative. This is the Ellroy of L.A. Confidential technique and it works really well once you get used to it - enabling Zinzi to stumble through the wider plot. For though she knows something bad is going on, and that she is becoming implemented, she becomes involved as the hustler that she is - with nothing much to lose, she decides to go along for the ride.

In many ways, the genre here isn't fantasy at all, but like Mieville's "The City and the City", a noirish crime drama. Zinzi is not so different in her accidental P.I. role than V.I. Warshawski in Paretsky's series of novels. Yet there's something other worldly about the novel that cleverly sees that traditional South African superstitions and magic are perfectly fitted to a contemporary fantasy noir.

There are times when the plot seems to get too convoluted, and some of the minor characters take on important roles, without the reader being entirely clear who they are. Yet there's a powerful driving sensibility from Zinzi's narration which holds the attention, even in a 400 page novel. As the plot points unravel and we see - at the same time as she does - what's really going on, what's also excellent is that there's no easy denouement. This is a cruel, Manichean world, where the Undertow has made a physical manifestation of people's crimes. Zinzi can't escape her fate, but she has to live with her actions. 

I thoroughly enjoyed "Zoo City" - and it seems, with her second novel, Beukes has managed to do something both original and familiar, with the setting in contemporary Jo'Burg, and its Zoo City slum, a brilliant setting for this fantastical modern noir.

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