When Zoo City by Lauren Beukes came out, it met with all sorts of critical acclaim. It won the Clarke award, and got nominated for the BSFA and WFA. Rightly so too. It’s got a detailed and original setting, and a fresh magical system involving animals and guilt. I enjoyed it a lot.
I’d like to talk about Zinzi December in today’s post. As far as main characters go, Zinzi’s got a lot of problems before the book even starts. She’s a former drug addict, she did time in prison, she got her brother killed by accident. Not to mention, she’s been animalled and her animal is a sloth. In the world of Zoo City, when someone is suffering from extreme guilt an animal arrives and becomes linked to them. They get psychic powers and looked down upon in society. They have to stay near their animals though, if they don’t, their bodies start to break down. They vomit, convulse, etc. Also, if their animal dies, they get hunted down by what’s called the Undertow, which is some sort of black hole vortex of doom.
Zinzi has a lot to feel guilty for, but most of all, it’s her brother’s death. She used to be a big time reporter, but her drug habit and animalled status have ex-communicated her to Zoo City. It’s a community of people who are animalled, who scratch by with whatever jobs they can take. Zinzi spends her time running 419 scam frauds for her old dealer, and finding lost objects for people. That’s her ability, and it’s thanks to Sloth, who hangs on her back like a pet.
She’s got a pretty likable personality. She’s witty, sharp, and Beukes isn’t afraid to write some sex into the story. It’s a nice change from writers who are too afraid to make women sexually active in their work because they’re afraid of being labeled sexist.
Almost immediately, Zinzi is thrust into a massive conspiracy involving the music industry, sex trafficing, serial killings, and ex-lovers. It’s a pretty complicated set-up, but it works.
Zinzi’s story is one of redemption. She doesn’t start off at rock bottom, but she sure gets there fast. Besides, the things she does to get by aren’t very ethical. She cheats people out of money using those bogus “Prince of Nigeria” emails on gullible people. She lies her way through the investigation she’s assigned, and she starts trouble when she thinks it’ll benefit her. She can also be downright mean and petty.
But who isn’t? That’s the thing with Zinzi. She’s doing these things to survive, and after what happened to her, it’s hard to blame her. There’s a good deal of empathy there. We want her to be okay, we want her to succeed. Deep down, she’s a good person, she’s just in a bad situation.
There are few people she cares about, but when they leave her, we can see how desperate she becomes. So when she hits rock bottom, again, we feel the absolute loss of hope she has. Then we watch as she picks herself back up. That’s where this book’s true power lies. In her. Because she’s broken past the point of repair, but she still does her best.
Here’s a minor spoiler. Things do not work out. Okay, it’s kind of a major spoiler, but I won’t get into details. She basically fails her missions, and this I think was a smart choice. Because sometimes, no matter how hard we try, no matter how many times we get back up and rage against our conflicts; sometimes things just don’t work out.
Even so, the last thing we see is Zinzi trying to do something good with her powers. Something tells me that Zinzi will take as many chances as she can, and that’s a very human thing, in my opinion.