Lauren Beukes’ 2010 novel Zoo City takes us to a fantastic South Africa where magic is real, where transgressions will saddle people with familiars, life-long magical animal companions, where corruption, crime and betrayal still work just the same way as they do in our world.
There’s an unspoken rule in hard boiled detective fiction: if the protagonist ever makes a point of saying there’s one thing they absolutely won’t do, you can be pretty sure that they will do that one thing before the book ends, usually some time in the first half of the book. For Zinzi December, a sloth-bearing former journalist and recovering drug addict up to her eyes in debt to her old pusher, that one thing is using her magical talent for finding things in order to find people.
Any guesses as to what Zinzi is forced to do in the course of the book? Anyone? Let’s not always see the same hands.
Because of course nothing ever happens one complication at a time, Zinzi also has to deal with the fact that her lover Benoit’s wife, long thought dead, has resurfaced in a refugee camp. If Benoit were the sort of person to abandon his wife because she picked an inconvenient moment to reappear, he wouldn’t be the sort of person with whom Zinzi fell in love.
Not only is Zinzi put in a position where she has to search Johannesburg for a missing girl, the missing girl is one half of a teen pop-sensation. Zinzi might be intimately familiar with the unsavory drug underground, she might have served years as an (inadvertent) accessory to her own brother’s murder, she may still be a career criminal specializing in 419 scams — but nothing in her life has prepared her for the moral cesspit that is the music industry.
I am pretty ignorant of fiction set in South Africa1, let alone fiction written by South Africans. In fact, I am pretty sure the only set-in-South-Africa series I have read is James McClure’s Kramer and Zondi police procedurals. Which are set in a different time (a couple of decades earlier than this novel) and which are for the most part entirely mundane2. My ignorance of South Africa the country is nearly as comprehensive. Hence I cannot really judge how accurate Beukes’ take on South Africa might be. She does come from there, though, so you’d expect a certain level of familiarity. She also did a fair amount of research for the novel. So unless my South African readers tell me otherwise, I’m going to assume that the novel’s background is fairly realistic (aside from the magic, obviously).
The South Africa of this novel is one where there are stark differences between the rich and poor, where the police’s ability (and interest) in enforcing the law is inconsistent at best, and where for people living in the wrong part of town, violent crime is a normal part of life. People complain about it, as they do about the weather, but they don’t do anything about it. Or cannot.
Beukes sticks fairly closely to the conventions of hard-boiled private detective fiction in her story and when I was reading this, I kept wondering “did this need to be fantasy?”3. Could she have ditched the supernatural elements, or at least written them so that readers could decide that they were merely superstition and suggestion? Could this have been an entirely mundane story about someone who gets caught up in a particularly unsavoury event in the pop music industry? By the time I had finished the book, I had decided she couldn’t have written the book that way. Without the supernatural elements, without their being physical fact, the story would not have worked the way it did.
Zoo City won lots of awards. According to Wikipedia4:
the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the 2010 Kitschies Red Tentacle for best novel. It was short-listed for the 2010 BSFA Award for best novel, the 2011 World Fantasy award for best novel, the 2010 – 2011 University of Johannesburg Creative Writing Prize, the M‑Net Literary Awards, the Nielsen’s Booksellers’ Choice Award 2011 and long-listed for South Africa’s Sunday Times Fiction Prize 2011 and the 2012 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The cover artwork received the 2010 BSFA award for best art. The novel has also been short-listed for the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire in France for best foreign novel, best translation by Laurent Philibert-Caillat and best cover by Joey Hi-Fi.
That’s an impressive list of awards and nominations5. I would like to say that I showed great self-control by putting off reading this widely lauded book for several years. And that it was very considerate of Kitchener Public Library to have a copy for sale, so I didn’t have to return this.
Zoo City is available from Angry Robot. I seem to be reading a lot of their books lately. Good publication list.
- I have listened to most of SF68, but even though that was a South African radio show, most of the works it adapted were by American SF authors (a surprising fraction of whom were authors who I really, really wouldn’t have expected to allow an Apartheid era radio station to adapt their work, which makes me wonder if the station ever bothered to ask them).
- Leaving aside a native healer predicting that the two cops would die of necklacing at the hands of (IIRC) Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife’s associates. This may have been McClure’s way of telling readers not to expect post-apartheid entries in the series.
- I think it was the Mike Resnick-edited Down These Dark Spaceways anthology in which, with the single exception of Robert Sawyer’s contribution, every single story could have had its McGuffin replaced with a manila envelope without changing anything significant about the story in question.
- Minus the footnotes, because one can go overboard on that sort of thing.
- The Joey Hifi cover isn’t the one above (which is by John Picacio) but this one: