Friday, October 01, 2010

"Zoo City" by Lauren Beukes

From here.

Having read Beukes' previous book, Moxyland, I was really pleased to have the opportunity to review this one. It didn't disappoint.

Beukes is South African, and cut her writing teeth (as it were) as a journalist. Her command of writing is evident - it is a gripping and subtle read. More significantly for a novel, it is a work of strong imagination - labelling is a little difficult: cyberpunk kind of covers it partly, but there's also some SF and fantasy/magic in there.

This is a world in which killing somebody results in you acquiring an animal "familiar" - think of Pullman's daemons in His Dark Materials - which in turn leads to you being stigmatised in mainstream society. However, these bonds strengthen your ability to do "magic" - I think! The first person (there's only one in this book, after the disorientating four in Moxyland!), Zinzi, has a sloth as her familiar, and the circumstances in which she acquired the sloth are only gradually revealed. Her magical gift is the ability to find lost items - things of emotional significance to a person she senses as being connected to them through a psychic thread, which she can follow to locate them.

When a client dies before paying her, she takes on the task of trying to find a lost teen popstar ... and it hardly comes as a surprise that there is more to this case than meets the eye.

It is set against a backdrop of political asylum, urban decay and civil unrest within Africa. It is pretty violent, and yet, as far as I can tell, reasonable in its portrayal of society, as modified by the existential changes that follow from this SF/fantasy premise.

What else is good? It's the right length - around 350 pages! The book comes with extras - an offer for a tie-in CD, some short stories based on Moxyland, acknowledgements which filled in some background. It's interesting to see how the new media have changed the process of writing - Beukes was assisted by various people online and IRL along the way, which leads to interesting echoey depths to the book.

Two niggles. Firstly, the castlist is quite long, and also SA slang terms were used liberally, which I found somewhat disorientating. I probably need to read it again to make sure I've untangled everything. And secondly, the book is very "of the moment" - Lady Gaga, the South African World Cup and a new iPhone being typical reference points. The downside of the largescale absorption of things like this from the culture is that it's fairly likely that a good number of them will, within a couple of years, look dated. That will be a shame - the writing in Zoo City merits a good shelflife.

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