Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
Read by Justine Eyre
Length: 9 Hrs 25 Min
Quick Thoughts: Zoo City is a unique novel, coupling vivid fantasy concepts with a gritty urban setting and offering one of the most interesting main characters I have experienced in a while.
One of my favorite sayings has always been, "Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth" not because I find there is some profound truth to the statement, but I enjoy the visual of some dude pulling the lips apart of some Clydesdale with a bow wrapped around it. I mean, heck, I enjoy funny animal visuals of all stripes. I recently received the audiobook Zoo City by Lauren Beukes as a gift through Audible.com gift program by a wonderful supporter of my blog. Zoo City was a book I had heard of, being part of the new Angry Robot Books audiobook partnership with Brilliance Audio. That being said, it wasn’t high on my list of potential reads, not because the book seemed bad, but, in retrospect, I think it was that the small summary of the novel didn’t really capture the essence of the book. Zoo City has received a lot of acclaim and award nominations, but I feared that this novel would be a bit beyond me. There are a lot of literary fantasy and magical realism novels, that, while I appreciate the concepts and the writing, I often don’t really engage with the book. I have no real qualifications to be a reviewer of literature, beyond being a voracious reader and audiobook listener, so I basically judge by books by how much I enjoyed them, and not on some sort of critical evaluation of it merits or literary significance. So, despite my reservations, when gifted the book by someone whose opinion I respect, and have similar tastes with, I decided to move it up in my listening queue. Now, of course, being a reviewer of audiobooks, I must look this gifted audiobook in its bytes.
Zoo City is the story of Zinzi December. Zinzi lives in an alternate history version of Johannesburg, South Africa, where criminals are mystically coupled with an animal that grants them some sort of minor magical gift. Zinzi works as a small time internet con artist, as well as using her specific gift, the ability to see and find a person’s lost things, in order to pay down her massive drug debt. While working on one of her cases, Zinzi get’s pressured into a job trying to find a missing pop star for a reclusive music executive, and of course, as with all such things, trouble ensues. The writing in Zoo City is lush and vivid, full of dreamy steam of conciseness fantasy sequences but grounded in the gritty reality of an urban slum. Beukes brilliantly uses elements of pop culture and the machinations of an internet savvy generation to build her world. Instead of a lot of exposition to explain the rules of her new world, she uses reviews and comments on an IMDB style movie site. Her actions scenes are well plotted, with a staccato rhythm interspersed with pop song lyrics. She fills her story with references as diverse as Che Guevara and lolzcats. While it all comes together in a fantastic canvas for her characters to play in, it is her main character Zinzi that is the true strength of the story. Zinzi, paired with her Sloth, is a smart mouthed, impulsive child of her times, and while she can be quite frustrating, you couldn’t help but want her to succeed. It was refreshing to experience a character so different from many fantasy leading ladies, she’s flawed, but self reliant, hard but not lacking empathy, and she is not in love with a Vampire. Zoo City is a unique novel, coupling vivid fantasy concepts with a gritty urban setting and offering one of the most interesting main characters I have experienced in a while.
I had mixed feelings overall about Justine Eyre’s narration. I am not an expert in regional accents in any way, so I am not sure how authentic the voice she gave to Zinzi was, yet, I found it to be just different enough to fit the feel of the book. The problem I had was that it took me a while to truly adjust to the voice. In the early stages of the novel I had trouble comprehending fully what she was saying. I spent so much time in the first hour of the audio deciphering her speech that I found it hard to engage with the story itself. Honestly, part of me was ready to give in, but after some time, I did adjust and found that the early work I put in paid off. Overall, I think the Justine Eyre did a good job with capturing the rhythms of the storytelling. I enjoyed some of her characterizations, while others were a little harder for me to get comfortable with. Yet, she accomplished the most important task of first person narration by giving the main character a unique but fitting voice. Listeners more accustomed with accents, or those willing to put in the effort adapting their listening skills will find the audiobook to be well worth the listen, those who may struggle with Eyre’s voice may want to check out the printed version instead. Yet, what ever format you choose, this is a book you should experience.