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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Zoo City

Lauren Beukes

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To purchase Zoo City

Title: Zoo City
Author: Lauren Beukes
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010
Length: 366 pages
Availability: Zoo City - US
Zoo City - UK
Zoo City - Canada
Zoo City - India
Zoo City - France

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Our Assessment:

B+ : great voice, good read

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 13/5/2011 Gwyneth Jones
The NY Times Book Rev. . 5/6/2011 Jeff VanderMeer
Publishers Weekly . 10/9/2010 .
The Washington Post . 3/5/2011 Fiona Zublin

  Review Consensus:

  Loses its way a bit, but still impressive

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is the other face of cyberpunk, a face we've seen too little of in the past decade. Not the ultra-violent übermensch "future noir" (though there's plenty of violence) but an information-drenched world that has become haunted. (...) Zoo City is about surface, décor and incident, grungey eyekicks and jive-talk for the in-crowd. (...) (P)ossibly Beukes herself isn't sure who did what to whom, in what order and why, on the way to a supremely messy and disgusting climax. But like Gibson, she brings a secret tenderness and humanity to her off-kilter portrait of the here and now." - Gwyneth Jones, The Guardian

  • "Beukesís energetic noir phantasmagoria, the winner of this yearís Arthur C. Clarke Award, crackles with original ideas. (...) Beukes skillfully employs all the twists of first-rate noir. An ending that includes a giant crocodile may be more conventional than the setup, but itís still powerful indeed." - Jeff VanderMeer, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Beukes delivers a thrill ride that gleefully merges narrative styles and tropes, almost single-handedly pulling the "urban fantasy" subgenre back towards its groundbreaking roots." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Beukes, who lives in Cape Town, is an enchanting writer, but the last third of her novel becomes disconnected from the tight first segment and grows so fantastical that itís hard to stay engaged. One gets the sense that the author wasnít sure how to end her story, so she brought in the machetes." - Fiona Zublin, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Zoo City is set in slightly alternate-world South Africa. Among the features not found in our world: some people are afflicted with 'Acquired Aposymbiotic Familiarism' -- or, more popularly, the Zoo Plague. In addition to whatever guilt and sin weighs them down (and it's something heavy -- like murder -- that triggers AAF), these people suddenly find themselves paired with a personal animal that accompanies them like the daemons from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials-trilogy. If separated from their animal, or if the animal dies the corresponding human also suffers a painful, terrible end. On the other hand, those afflicted with AAF also now find they have some unusual (super-human) ability, called a mashavi, or just shavi.
       Zoo City is narrated by Zinzi December, and her burden is the guilt about being responsible (as she sees it) for the death of her brother; now she has a sloth. She also has a special talent: her shavi is finding lost objects. After a drug-addled past she's trying to get her life in some order, but she still owes a lot of money and supplements her income (or rather pays off her debt) by being involved in a 419 e-mail scam -- duping unsuspecting foreigners to give money to dubious African causes in the expectation of making a fortune. And she lives in Zoo City, a run-down and fairly lawless part of Johannesburg, where outcasts like her can find some refuge.
       Staying on the straight and narrow proves difficult when the latest person to hire her to retrieve an object winds up brutally murdered, and the man in her life, Benoît, turns out to have a wife and kids back home in Rwanda. Desperate for a bigger score, Zinzi takes on the kind of case she generally tries her best to avoid: finding a missing person. Songweza, one half of a teen twin brother-sister singing act, Song and S'bu, whose first huge album is about to be released, is missing.
       The twins are managed by a larger-than-life reclusive impresario, Odi Huron, and he's the one who hires Zinzi. She doesn't have quite the same feel for people as she does for objects, so she has to take a more traditional PI-approach, with lots of legwork. Only slowly does she realize that there's a lot more going on here than meets the eye.
       Most of Zoo City is Zinzi's first-person account, but interspersed between her reports are a variety of documentary bits -- an IMDb-like online movie site listing, an abstract of a scientific paper, encyclopaedia entries, etc. -- which provide a bit more background and color to some aspects of this (just slightly) alternate world. But the bulk of the book is very much Zinzi's own story, and it's in the telling that the book really succeeds. Beukes has found a great voice for Zinzi, and despite some of the unsavory aspects (like the 419 scams) manages to strike just the right tone. While the story itself winds up being a bit simple and conventional, it's in the telling that it shines, as Zoo City is thoroughly engaging from beginning to near-end -- in every sense a good read.
       Even if the most inspired bits -- notably the daemon-like animal companions -- are derivative, Beukes writes so well that Zoo City is a pleasure to read even at its most unpleasant. Remarkably, even though neither the story nor many of the details are particularly original, Beukes has fashioned a thoroughly entertaining read -- and looks to definitely be a talent to look out for.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 December 2011

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Zoo City: Reviews: Lauren Beukes: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       South African author Lauren Beukes was born in 1976.

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© 2011-2021 the complete review

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