Zinzi December is a disgraced journalist living in a bad part of an alternative Johannesburg, scraping by partly through a mashavi gift for finding stuff other people have lost, and partly by using her writing skills to draft scam emails that cheat the gullible into handing over their life-savings to a gangster.
Oh, and she is "animalled" - mysteriously, irrevocably attached to a Sloth. Animalling, or Acquired Aposymbiotic Familiarism, is something like Aids, something to do with guilt, and very different from the daemons Philip Pullman gives his Dark Materials characters. If there is a more coherent explanation for Sloth, or for the other creatures attached to the low-lifers who are exiled in Zoo City, it escapes me. Intriguingly, this doesn't actually matter very much, for Lauren Beukes writes so vividly that, like Raymond Chandler, the mood and place are so strong you don't really notice that plotting and explanation are often merely distractions.
Zinzi and her war-scarred boyfriend Benoit are compelling characters, fighting for survival in a South Africa that may be a little way into the future, but may just as well be here and now. Zoo City pounds with music, magic and violence, and I have no idea which parts are real and which imagined.
Struggling to pay off an unpayable debt to drug dealer Vuyo, Zizi is compelled to use a mix of unethical reporting skills and vaguely defined magical gifts to try and track down Songweza, one half of a brother and sister teen band iJusi, put together by vile music producer called Huron.
Mr Huron, I presume, emerges onto the balcony with a flourish. He's not so much a barrel of a man as a bagpipe, all his weight loaded in front, straining a t-shirt that bears the legend Depeche Mode Rose Bowl Pasadena 1987. He's balding on top, but he's grown the rest of his hair and pulled it into a thin scraggly ponytail. The genuinely powerful, unlike the Vuyos of this world, don't give a fuck about making an impression.
Zinzi is tough and flawed. Bad things have happened t her and she has done bad things - she was jailed and animalled for killing her brother. There's a bit of Lisbeth Salander in her (but even with Sloth, she is a little more believable).
I hand over an old card to each of them, from FL[Former Life, pre-animalling]. Cringingly, it reads:
ZINZI DECEMBER WORD PIMP
That's just the kind of cocky idiot I was. "Wordsmith" was too wanky. But why I couldn't have just gone with "writer" or "freelance journalist", only my cocky idiot FL self knows. At least I managed to keep my old number.
"What's a word pimp? Like you rent out words by the hour?"
"For dodgy assignations in tacky motel bedrooms. Yeah."
The investigation twists and turns, driven by Zoo City beats and Beukes' adrenaline prose to a bloody and rather overwrought conclusion.
A strange book to sandwich between the brilliant and beautiful fairy tale, Eucalyptus and the mannered charm of Ngaio Marsh who is adding New Zealand to my Global Challenge reads, but neither of them made me download the soundtrack...