In August 2009, Red Rook Review highly recommended Ms Beukes' first book, Moxyland. Moxyland is just now appearing in the United States to high acclaim and you can read my review here: http://redrookreview.blogspot.com/2009/08/moxyland-by-lauren-beukes.html.
Her second novel, Zoo City, which will soon be available in the United Kingdom, however, is a better book for reasons that might confuse some of the die-hard urban fantasists but will please those readers who yearn for well-written, thoughtful, and reality-based fantasy.
To begin, Beukes just writes well. Her novel is a first-person narrative that shares and incorporates most of the tropes of noir fiction but also possesses a well-thought-out and heavily researched psychological underpinning, which elevates the novel from the category of simple noir to psychological noir with an element of the uncanny (using Freud's definition of "uncanny" here). If we put these elements together to categorize the novel, it is a psychological thriller based in the present with an underlying theme of the uncanny that approaches the horrific. And because of the the uncanny elements, which function both literally and figuratively in the tale, it falls within the category of urban fantasy on the one hand but it also demonstrates elements of a 19th century romance (cf: The Scarlet Letter and The Woman in White)on the other. Her facile mixture of genre types, of course, makes the novel post-modern in a very literal sense and as a result of her genre-bending and exquisite prose, Ms Beukes must be taken seriously, not only as an urban fantasist but as a serious writer of ideas.
Irrespective of the literary impulses that inform the novel and raise it, in my eyes, above the usual fare we find in the science fiction and fantasy ghetto of our local bookstore, Zoo City is on the most fundamental level a fun read. The characters are interesting, the setting unique, especially to Western eyes, the mystery is really a mystery, and the magic is based on existing human belief systems.
In regard to characters, the protagonist, rather than a down-on-his-luck PI, is a twenty-something black woman by the name of Zinzi December. Zinzi is an ex-journalist, drug-addicted, convicted felon, who uses her uncanny skill to track down lost objects in Johannesburg. Zinzi lives in a neighborhood called Zoo City and Zoo City is, in reality, a ghetto, where aposymbiots congregate. Aposymbiots possess mashavi, which is an African word that describes both the preternatural talents of a aposymbiot and the aposymbiot's familiar. An aposymbiot is a sinner (felon), whose sin is manifest in the literal form of an animal, who lives symbiotically with the human. The animal, in effect, makes tangible the tort and is to be seen like Hester Prynne's "A" as a sign of her penance and a warning to all others. In other words, the greater the sin the more dangerous the familiar animal. Zinzi's animal is a cute sloth, whereas other possess much more formidable creatures: crocodiles and buzzards. The animals in Zoo City, however, are not figurative as in Pullman, nor are they to be seen as a part of the soul; they are living, breathing creatures that are connected intrinsically with the the physical body of the sinner.
The novel begins with Zinzi being asked to find a ring. She takes the job because she is in debt to some loan sharks, who are running an internet scam, and forcing her to use her journalist skills to write copy for their schemes. Because of her past crime and her animal she is unable to find legitimate work.
The job of finding the ring brings her into contact with members of the music business, who hire her to find a lost teenage singer. The singer is a twin and Zinzi's search allows us to see the inner workings of the South African music business, the world of nightclubs, and the workings of Johannesburg. It is here that the novel feels very real. Ms Beukes is a journalist and she creates a vivid picture of present day Johannesburg. We see the crime on the streets, the rich in their protected environment, and the every day lives of the poor. Hers is a world new to most Western eyes. Just her literal description of an existing milieu makes the novel unique. However, within this context, she also serves up the magic of Africa, the folklore and the witchcraft. This underlying texture of the uncanny hardly intrudes on the fictional realty of the present day world until the very end.
As in all crime fiction, we soon learn that Zinzi is being used and that there is more going on than just the search for a lost girl. This plot device creates suspense and surprise; and, when the denouement comes near the end of the novel Beukes does not serve up a rosy ending; instead, she writes a brutal conclusion, which in its internal logic, is satisfying but horrific.
Finally, Beukes' characters are hip and sexy and her protagonist acts like a real woman. The sex scenes are believable, just as the action scenes are taut, believable, and bloody. Zinzi December is a keeper. Maybe she will appear again with the sloth. I hope so.
At this point I usually recommend other books similar to the author's. Strangely, the two books I thought of while I was reading the novel were Bernard Malamud's The Tenants and China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. You figure it out.