Zoo City review – His Dark Materials’ gritty big brother

[This book contains graphic violence, animal cruelty, as well as references to slavery and rape – definitely NOT suitable for younger readers

This year I’m doing a genre fiction writing class as part of my degree and it’s forcing me to read books I’d never even think about picking up. Zoo city by Lauren Beukes the first of many  books I never thought I’d read.


[Zoo City // Mulholland Books // 358 pages]

 Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2011, Zoo City follows Zinzi December as she struggles to make a living sending scam emails and using her shavi (a magical skill) to find lost things in a reimagined version of Johannesburg. Zinzi was a journalist in a former life but having been sent to jail for assisting in her brother’s murder (I think???) she and the sloth on her back, have to live in zoo city – the part of town where the other zoos/animalled live. Zinzi has one rule, she doesn’t work missing person cases but one day a job goes wrong and the police take her money she’s forced to break that rule.


I don’t really know where to start with this book other than it was a hot mess. If you’re a fan of having things explained to you then this probably isn’t the book for you. If you’re not a fan of very graphic violence then this book probably isn’t for you. If you’re not a fan wild, crazy plots that are difficult to follow then this probably isn’t the book for you. 

This novel is built on such an interesting premise – guilty murderers (or maybe just guilty criminals, the book wasn’t exactly clear) are approached by a familiar like animal (think His Dark Materials deamons but not so cute) who they become physically linked to and have to spend the rest of their lives with. If you get an animal you also get a magic power (shavi) as well. If the animal dies then the Undertow comes to claim the person. However I have read the whole novel and I still don’t know what Zinzi actually did to get Sloth? Or why the animals come to criminals? What the animals really are? Are they personified guilt? Are they the lost spirit of the person killed? What the Undertow is? Or why this world went from a normal world like ours, to a world where people become animalled??? I have so many unanswered questions!

The amount of violence didn’t purposefully bother me in this book, but it bothered a lot of other people in my class and I can see why. There’s a lot of it and not all of it was necessary, especially towards the end. I’m not very squeamish and I even I was feeling a bit sick in the final two chapters. If you don’t like animals being tortured, the sewers, guts spilling everywhere, people stabbing each other then maybe it’s best to avoid this one!

This is one of those books were the story plods along slowly, taking lots of detours along the way for about 300 pages, but suddenly you turn the pages, everything goes up a gear or seven, and you’re flying through the rest of the plot at hyperspeed. There’s not enough time to fully understand what’s going on, or why. And now you’ve just been dragged along through the violent and bloody climax and dumped on the last page of the book with no idea what the hell just happened.  Again the structure and pacing of the book left me with so many unanswered questions despite the couple hundred pages of build up.


BUT, if you do like books that are set in ‘unusual’ places this book might interest you. If you like characters who are complicated and feel so real it hurts check this book out! OR if you’re a fan of naggy Sloths running main character’s fun then this is the book for you my friend.

I have to say I was probably too excited to be reading a book set outside America or the UK. Add to that that I’ve never read a book set in modern Africa and less than five of the characters are white, and suddenly all sorts of boxes are being ticked. A new setting with new people telling new stories was super refreshing. If you have any recommendations for books set in interesting places, please let me know in the comments!

There are a lot of characters in Zoo City, slightly too many to keep track of honestly. However every character is completely different, some are so disgusting they make your skin crawl, some you want to punch, some you want to pull out of the book so the world doesn’t ruin them and some are so charming they make you blush. Zinzi is a really great character as well, so well written that she’s able to carry the flaws of this book and make it readable. She’s a badass, selfish criminal who is neck deep in every bad idea she can think off (scams, debt, drugs, affairs). Never once were her choices confusing to me, she didn’t annoy me and her character development arch was fantastic.

Sloth, thank the heavens for Sloth. Sloth is so special he gets his own paragraph. He’s a little bit of a coward, he likes to sleep at the worst times, he’s always telling Zinzi off when she tried to break the law and he tries to bite a fuckboi’s ear off. He’s great. I connected to him on an emotional level.


This book was stuck in between being easy to read (so I flew through it) but I didn’t really find there was a point where I couldn’t put it down. I enjoyed it while I was reading but I don’t think it’ll stick with me much longer than writing this review.


Have you read Zoo City? Let me know what you thought of it.


-p.s If you like in the UK this book is very hard to get hold of in English because Beukes had some issues with her publisher, so be careful you don’t accidentally order it in the wrong language like 90% of my class did (me included)!!


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