Review By Jarad Johnson
“Monkey on my back,” is a common term for heroin addiction, but in this riveting magical-realism novel, Beukes takes it quite literally. Here, set in an alternate of the South African city of Johannesburg, people who have committed a crime, and those who bear a significant amount of guilt are, “animalled,” or magically attached to an animal familiar. While the animal brings with it some magic in the form of psychic powers and perhaps marginal comfort, the animal is their version of the scarlet, “A.” In short, the animal is a sort of marker for their wrong-doing. The protagonist of the novel is Zinzi December, an animalled girl with a sloth who lives in a slum nicknamed, “Zoo City,” for its large population of animalled people. When she is first introduced, Zinzi is attempting to pay back her drug dealer by charging people for her ability to locate lost objects. However, she quickly gets caught up in harrowing missing persons case that leads her to reevaluate everyone and everything she trusts.
One of the most interesting thing about Zoo City is the way in which it’s written. Beukes does not reveal anything to the reader; you discover the information as you go along. I found this to be refreshing, as most authors reveal all of the, “necessary,” plot points at the beginning of the novel, so it was interesting to be sort of confused for most of the book.
I find the, “Animalled Epidemic,” from the book to be particularly memorable. Of course, it’s not uncommon to see similar familiar-like relationships pop up in folklore, but this is different. The author writes that this phenomenon started in the 1980s, which is when the AIDS epidemic struck the U.S. And today, of course, many parts of Africa are plagued by an AIDS epidemic, so I find many similarities there. Like many people from the 80s, the animalled are quarantined and feared by most of society. Also, many people are afraid of these people because they do not understand them, like people who thoughts AIDS was a viral disease for many years.
More broadly, I think that this novel is in some ways a commentary on African Culture. During Apartheid, which literally means separateness, there were entire communities that had walls around them to keep others out, and we see some of that imagery in the novel. But, in some ways, I think Beukes is saying that there are still some walls around Africa, and still lots of walls to tear down. Even in the U.S, there is a stereotype of Africa as a sort of primitive country, when in fact it’s the opposite. Africa has a thriving culture like any other country, and many people don’t realize that.
The actual plot of the novel itself is engrossing. The air of mystery permeates throughout, and the reader is kept on the edge of their seat. The author writes in an interesting style, never revealing too much information, leaving the reader guessing for much of the novel. One of the more interesting aspects of the book is the character development of Zinzi. At first, she is only looking out for herself, and she doesn’t care who gets hurt in her quest for money. But we gradually see her develop empathy, and by the end of the novel she is a completely different person.
Overall, the novel Zoo City is fantastic. I loved the character arc of Zinzi, getting to see her progress so much, and the overall story. While I wish that the author would have given a little more detail regarding the core mystery of the novel, I still enjoyed it. The animal and human relationships were also quite fascinating, and getting to see how those evolved was one of the best parts of the book. I’m definitely hoping for a sequel.
Jarad attends Middle Tennessee State University, loves tea, and tries to spend every spare second reading. Jarad is majoring in English. Bless his heart! Let's all light a candle for him and send him happy thoughts!