So, sometimes when I read a book with a really innovative concept and a really unique and different feel from other things I’ve read, I get this overwhelming sense of “oh my god, I’ll never write anything this good or new or unique, all my ideas are old and stale and overdone.” As much as I’m not wild about that feeling, it’s kind of cool because 1) that feeling only comes from reading pretty high quality stories, 2) I am always inspired by competition to do better. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes definitely made me feel like that.
The truth behind the conceit is explained gradually throughout the book, information given in drips and spurts, until you piece things together. The book takes place in an alternate universe where a new disease sweeps the world in the 90s, creating people called aposymbionts, or “zoos” as they’re colloquially called throughout the book. Aposymbionts are people who’ve committed a crime or who need to atone for something, and they attract an Animal (capitalized in the book for clarity), who in a way symbolizes their guilt. Zoos suffer panic attacks, pain, and acute stress when separated from their Animals, so they have to keep them with them at all times, leading to discrimination against Zoos. This is perhaps in some small ways, compensated by the fact that becoming an aposymbiont also grants one some kind of special power, called a shavi. The main character, Zinzi December, has a Sloth and an ability to find lost things.
Zinzi, in an attempt to lay low and avoid the attention of the authorities, sticks to finding small things – lost jewelry, for example. Of course, nothing ever stays small, or else it wouldn’t be a very interesting book. She eventually gets sucked into a missing persons case involving the female half of an up-and-coming twin pop duo. The other main plot thread follows Zinzi’s struggle with addiction, having recovered (as much as one ever does) and through this case, winding up sucked back in with the same person who got her hooked in the first place.
I found Zinzi a really compelling character, and not necessarily a likeable one at all times. Her relationships with her lover, Benoit, and her former lover, Gio are a really good contrast to each other. Gio is the better match for her on paper, being, you know, if nothing else, not married to someone else. But he also gets her addicted to heroin and publishes her nude photos in the magazine he writes for without her permission. Benoit is married to another woman (who is of unknown status in a refugee camp halfway across Africa) and is a fellow Zoo, implied to have an extremely violent backstory. But he also actually treats Zinzi with kindness and respect and at the end of the book, she actually goes off on her own to see if she can find his wife and kids for him.
This is framed as Zinzi’s big act of redemption, the thing that maybe will be enough atonement for the event that caused her to become an aposymbiont in the first place – she got her brother killed. The exact sequence of events is left unshown, but it’s implied that Zinzi’s brother took a bullet for her when a gang came to collect on her drug debts. When a minor police officer character comments that Zinzi’s Sloth represents guilt, it is not an exaggeration or even a metaphor. It’s just the truth. I like that her redemption doesn’t truly come until the end, the very end. And it doesn’t come easily and it doesn’t come without a price, as well it shouldn’t. Leading to your brother’s death shouldn’t be something you just get over and are immediately forgiven for. So I like that Zinzi’s redemption takes a lot more, specifically sacrificing her relationship with Benoit and actively working to reunite him with his family.
One of the things that really fascinated me throughout the book was the recurring theme of the Undertow. Initially it’s presumed to just be a sort of psychological presence that haunts the aposymbionts, a sense of impending doom that comes along with the condition. The idea that “sooner or later, the Undertow comes for us all” is repeated throughout the book, by multiple characters. That is, until the Undertow is revealed to be an extremely literal manifestation – a swirling, sweeping black horror that literally comes to collect the souls of Zoos. It’s frankly terrifying and I think it almost does an even better job of portraying the consequences and guilt than the Animals do. Aww you get a cool animal sidekick but also you are denied the possibility of a peaceful or quiet death!
The whodunit mystery plot of this book is engaging and interesting, and takes a lot of unexpected turns. The teen pop star angle on the missing girl case is interesting and Beukes does a good job of showing the dark undersides of the music industry that ends up intertwined with everything else in the book. The slums of Johannesburg are portrayed in vivid detail, especially as the backdrop for the Zoo crisis. It’s mentioned that Zoos are treated wildly differently in different areas of the world, from being killed on sight to being idolized like rock stars. Effectively quarantining them in slums seems like a pretty realistic take on something like this, although it’s of course hard to predict what might happen in a fantastical scenario like this. On the other hand, it isn’t necessarily that fantastical. If people were forced to wear visual representations of their “crimes” (real or fake), it’s not hard at all to imagine people’s reactions. When Odi Huron mentions that he wants his missing pop princess to be returned “pure”, he doesn’t mean her virginity – he means he wanted her to come back without an Animal.
This is a pleasingly complex, interwoven story with a lot of well-written characters and a really well-thought-out world. The consequences of the aposymbiont disease are examined thoroughly in different circumstances and the book is interspersed with essays and snippets of other “non-fictional” works that bring this world to life. They’re written by other authors, which I think was a good call on Beukes’ part, as it lends verisimilitude to an otherwise fantastic premise. This was a really enjoyable book and I definitely want to read more by this author.