I loved Moxyland, Beukes' first book with Angry Robot. I don't always love edgy books, but Moxyland was nervous and dangerous in a very real way. The life we should never want near us. Like Moxyland, Zoo City is set in South Africa. This makes the story both familiar and alien. That sense of almost alien that one gets from a city one has read about but never visited is far stronger for somewhere like Johannesburg than it can ever be for New York or Paris or London. I wonder if non-Australians get the same sense from novels set in Canberra or Brisbane?
Zoo City is present tense, first person. I'm ambivalent about first person present tense narratives. They take careful handling and sharp writing. I forgot my misgivings about the person and tense within three paragraphs – Beukes is one of those rare writers who can get away with the tense, the person and make it seem easy. She doesn't rely on it the whole way through, which helps.
Like Moxyland, Zoo City is peppered with texts from that universe. They help us see the world as a real world, a working world and they help us care for the narrator, who is trapped in that real and working world and doesn't have terribly many options.
While Zoo City still has an edge, it's more lyrical than Moxyland. And it has magic. Urban fantasy, for one of the most interesting definitions of the term.
The protagonist can sense lost things. Sometimes she finds them. She is animalled, underclass. It's been a long time since I've read an urban fantasy based on the-world-as-we-know-it-one-day-changed assumption. The novel is now, but it's certainly not us. Beukes handles that assumption differently and shows how deep the effects of the changes are, right from the beginning. One sentence of hers explains the nature of the change better than four sentences of mine, so here is that sentence: "All it takes is one Afghan warlord to show up with a Penguin in a bulletproof vest and everything science and religion thought they knew goes right out the window."
The fantasy elements are familiar. Justine Larbalestier's How to Ditch Your Fairy carried through to its full dangerous potential; Pullman's external souls in an adult world. Beukes handles them in her way and their familiarity doesn’t matter.
All that matters is the remorseless pull of the story and the bitter wish for a happy ending. Beukes' worlds aren't hyper-real, or gentled: they hurt because they're just one step removed from what we know. One dangerous step. One difficult step. And I find myself being very grateful that Beukes writes using the South African landscape and not the Australian. My very unfamiliarity with the country gives me the distance I need to appreciate the story. If she had set it in Canberra, I would not be sleeping so well at night.
It's not a perfect book. There is a shift in its nature a way in and it becomes more coherent and traditional – I liked it the way I met it, though, with a narrative apparently held together by sharp beauty and shifting tensions and Zinzi's voice. It's an easier read after the shift, I admit, just not as amazing. It's necessary, so that we led into a climax and crisis and damnation and crisis and damnation and it looks as if it will always, always get worse and then, finally, resolution-maybe. One day I'd like to see Beukes push the narrative envelope as far as it can go, just to see what she can drag her readers into experiencing.
Moxyland was excellent. Zoo City is better. Neither of them are comfort reading.