If you have to live with a constant reminder of your worst action, do you think you could move on from it?
Given how much I cringe over mishaps that took place 10 years ago, I know I couldn’t. But Zinzi December, the narrator of Zoo City, is able to. Just not at first.
From the beginning of the story, she has a constant companion, who never leaves her side. At first glance, this companion wouldn’t seem too much of a burden. He’s a sloth. They’re kind of cute animals, maybe a pain to carry around, but having one shouldn’t be a big deal. Right?
Wrong. If you have an animal, you’re an outcast.
Zinzi and her sloth live in a kind of ghetto in Johannesburg, South Africa. Appropriately called ‘Zoo City,’ it’s a place where stabbings, drug deals, and muggings are relatively routine. The buildings are often scavenged for anything to sell and Zinzi’s home is so bad that she has to take fire escapes and holes in the floor just to get out of her own apartment in the morning.
On the side, she runs email scams for an exceptionally sleazy individual who has his fingerprints on all sorts of illegal cons. Zinzi isn’t happy about working for him, but she justifies the scamming due to debt and the fact that standard employers tend to frown on people with animals.
She does have a semi-legitimate freelancing business, using her semi-magical ability to sense lost things to get a good fee for tracking down those items. That ability pretty much the only perk that comes with having an animal and she’s not shy about using it. She’s adamant about not doing missing persons, however.
When she’s asked to find a missing singer, everything begins to go downhill.
As I read, my constant question was “How do people end up with these animal companions?” followed by “Why are they stigmatized?” Part of the fun of this book was that you were just dropped into this world, so putting together all the hints about Zinzi’s past, the most common circumstances of the animalled, and so on was one of the most engaging aspects of the book. There were all sorts of hint that culminate in an absolutely nightmarish scene about two-thirds of the way through the book.
But because I feel it’s one of the most interesting aspects of the story, and is kind of crucial to why I liked this book so much- I’m going to give my own theory, which has a fair amount of evidence to back it up (though I’ve read the book twice and still am not 100% sure about the accuracy of it):
****SORT-OF SPOILER THEORY****
If you murder someone, you get an animal. I think. Maybe it’s just taking a life? There are a few incidents that make it rather hard to say for sure; but suffice to say I’m almost sure someone has to die for the perpetrator to get an animal. Pretty much everyone who has one has killed another human being at some point. Just crime doesn’t seem to be enough, since Zinzi’s skeevy con-man employer is anxious to avoid getting saddled with an animal friend.
****END SORT-OF SPOILER THEORY****
Theoretically you could refuse the animal when it arrives. But then the Undertow- the mysterious force that gives these animals to their recipients- will take you.
When it does, it is not pretty. And the Undertow isn’t even as bad as this story gets. I have a high resistance to creepy things in books, but the final fight in Zoo City is one of the most disturbing things I can remember reading. Zinzi having to shield herself with a dead body from a crocodile’s lair is one of the milder moments.
Regardless of the disturbance factor, I absolutely loved this book. Lauren Beukes did such a good job establishing this world and the rules that go into the human-and-animal bond. By occasionally interjecting academic papers, articles, and essays that try to explain the existence of these strange animal companions, she does a lot to make her world concrete. The articles in particular are fantastic (her journalism experience shows, since they sound very professional) and do a great job showing the reactions of other people to people with animals and highlighting the friction that would come about in society, given what animals say about the people who have them. And her writing in general is great. This is one of the few first-person present narratives I’ve come across that didn’t set my teeth on edge.
Anyway, the worldbuilding of this is spectacular. And the characters are really appealing, though not in any conventional sense. Zinzi, our narrator, is a mess when the story begins, and her situation does not get better as the story goes on. By the end she’s in an even more tenuous position than she started, at least materially.
But her growth as a character in that interval is amazing.
I’ll be honest- when the story began, I really didn’t like her. She was unreasonable, stubborn, arrogant, made a significant amount of her living by cheating people, and was resolutely contemptuous of almost everyone in reach. And that’s not even touching into her old addictions or the implications of her animal and the brief hints at her actions in her old life. Yet the more she narrated, the more I felt as though I was following her around, shadowing her. And the more the story progressed, the more she grew on me. Zinzi has so many things haunting her and so many mistakes that spiraled out of control that I began to feel really sorry for her. The cards have been stacked against her from the moment she got out of prison, and she acknowledges how much of that is her fault, and doesn’t whine when circumstances overtake her. Instead, she takes action, without posturing or worrying.
For me, Zinzi’s triumph came when she finally faced how many things she had done wrong and did the right thing when the time came. And though the end of the book leaves her completely isolated and alone, she has more power than before, because she finally acted on her own convictions, rather than reacting to the circumstances around her. She had struggled and fallen in the worst possible ways- and yet in the end, she chose to do the right rather than the easy, quietly, and without a fuss.
I like people who can undertake that kind of heroism; it’s the hardest kind, with least reward. Seeing it from a heroine who had hit rock bottom made it that much more powerful, and made me hope for that kind of strength.