Apologies for being late with this, circumstances over the first 6 weeks of this year have not been conducive to reading unfortunately. I have finally got to the end of Zoo City by Lauren Buekes, the first suggestion in Curiosity Killed the Bookworm’s 2012 Sci Fi Challenge, and here’s what I thought of it… (forgive me if it’s a little clunky, I haven’t done this since I was at school!)
Not traditional sci-fi, Zoo City is hard to define. Dystopian maybe? Reviews on Amazon call it ‘cyberpunk’. Either way, set in a crumbling South Africa in the not-too-distant future the story finds us following Zinzi, a young woman who has become a ‘zoo’. One of the many people who have committed crimes and as a result acquired an animal familiar and mystic talent as a very obvious sign of their guilt. Zinzi’s animal is a sloth and her talent is finding things. Scratching a living finding lost personal knick knacks for people in the ghetto area where all the ‘zoos’ have congregated with those too poor to move on she is asked to track down not a lost thing, but a lost person, and promised a handsome reward for it. But things are not as they seem and the search for the missing pop starlet becomes a much darker hunt than the storm drains Zinzi usually finds herself in.
I was vaguely disappointed with this book, but I’m not entirely sure why. I liked the premise of the story, the idea that people have these animals as marks of guilt, how they deal with it and the mystical connotations behind it. The animals through the story seem to be reflections of the characters they are attached to. The writing is good, as the book goes on there are emails and newspaper clippings that give more background to the world the story is set in and the chapter involving the couple who had fallen for an email scam made me genuinely uncomfortable. There are some colourful descriptions, one of my favourites being “The grassy verges on the pavement are more manicured than a porn star’s topiary”. I found Zinzi to be a likeable character, someone who had been doing reasonably well in a former life but got in with the wrong crowd and is now paying the price for it. For me there was the right amount of cynicism, regret and optimism in her and I found myself rooting for her as the story developed. But yet….
But yet, somehow the story isn’t more than the sum of its parts. I found it difficult to get into. I spent the first 7 chapters feeling like I was missing something important, that something was supposed to be being revealed to me bit by bit but I wasn’t quite seeing it. It wasn’t until nearly halfway through that I realised it was a going to be a detective story of sorts and I did have to flip back a couple of times to remind myself of who characters were and how they fitted into things. I didn’t really understand where the animals or the Undertow came from in the first place and what it was exactly that led to Zinzi to be in the position she is, other than it involved a drug problem and the killing of her brother. The heavy power of the magic and symbolism of the animals only seems to be emphasised towards the end. Nothing seems to really tie up.
It may have been the fractured way I read it but it just didn’t gel together in a satisfactory way for me, which is a shame because when I first looked at the description I was looking froward to reading it. Maybe it will stand up better after a second reading but I’m going to have to be feeling very generous to give it that second chance. It’s not a bad story, but I’m not sure how good it is either.
Rating: An absolutely average 2.5/5.