Friday, September 24, 2010

Review: Zoo City

Author:  Lauren Beukes
Pages:  384pp
ISBN 978 0 85766 054 1
Buy it from the Book Depository

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

Lauren Beukes has an astonishing talent with words.  She uses words like a painter uses paint and does it exceedingly well.  In “Zoo City” she creates a vivid version of contempary Johannesburg.  A Johannesburg where magic and muti is real and where Hillbrow (the Zoo City in the title) is a haven for ‘animalled’ people.  The ‘animalled’ are people  who due to their sinful deeds are magically tethered to an animal companion.

It is believed that the animal is a physical manifestation of their sins – their cross to bear for all the world to see.   Separation from their animal companion causes extreme pain so they are forced to take the animal with them wherever they go.  The animal companion also acts as protection against the Undertow, a physical manifestation of darkness (hell?) that comes to claim the person when their animal dies.

The main character, Zinzi December, in one of the ‘animalled’ (a zoo in slang).  She has a sloth on her back – literally!  It isn’t all bad though, each ‘animalled’ has a special talent.  In Zinzi’s case it’s the ability to find missing things.  She uses this talent to make a living by finding lost items, charging a reasonable fee for their return.  That’s of course when she isn’t busy running a 419 scam in order to pay off her drug debts.

Events conspire against her and she is roped in to finding a missing singer for Huron, an eccentric music producer with a shady past.  While on the case she stumbles across something far more sinister, something that could cost her her life… 

The Verdict:

This was the first time I read something by Lauren Beukes.  I’ve been meaning to get Moxyland when it was first released, but never got round to it. 

Zoo City is very well written and populated with vibrant characters and situations.  It depicts real world problems that are still prevalent in South Africa – the homeless, drug abuse and discrimination.  The dialogue is witty, full of pop-culture references.  Best of all it contains quite a few uniquely South African terms and sayings which was refreshing to see.

The story and concept is captivating.  While it does seem to be heavily inspired by Pullman’s “The Golden Compass” it is given a unique enough twist to keep things interesting.  Some elements, like the Undertow, could have been better explored.  At the start you are left with no clue why people have animals following them around, but gradually things start to make sense.  Some sort of explanation closer to the start of the novel might have been less confusing.  The ending is also somewhat of a letdown, but leaves enough room for a possible sequel. 

Zoo City is definitely recommended for fans of Urban fantasy.  It is a riveting read that kept me turning the pages and forced me to finish it in a single day.

Rating: 7/10

Buy it from the Book Depository


  1. I loved the book! You might wanna check out my 10 Question interview with Lauren over at

    Interestingly, the administrator of worldswithoutend pointed me to your site. We are both South African anf it took an American to direct me here :)

  2. It's a weird and wonderful world we live in. I think South African book bloggers are few and far between and mostly get the cold shoulder from publishers.

    Overseas publishers seem to make much more use of bloggers as part of their book promotions. Here we tend to be enthusiastic, self-funded book lovers trying to do our thing while staying largely unknown.

    Great interview Emil, I enjoyed reading it.

  3. I have this on my shelf and can't wait to read it! My first thought reading your description was "holy Golden Compass" I am more excited to get started on it. I think this review just moved it up to the top of the pile.

    1. It is very good. The South African setting should also be very interesting for international readers. Hope you enjoy it!