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My Not-Quite Cultural Olympiad: South Africa

6 August, 2012

[Details of what my Not-Quite Cultural Olympiad is all about are here.]

So far in my Not-Quite Cultural Olympiad I’ve covered two continents and two forms of art, so it seems only appropriate to move on to a third of each, with the country of South Africa and a piece of literature. For those who’ve been reading this blog for a while, it’s probably not difficult to guess where I’m going with this: ‘Zoo City’, by Lauren Beukes.

I really can’t sum up Zoo City better than the official blurb, so here it is:

Zinzi has a Sloth on her back, a dirty 419 scam habit and a talent for finding lost things. But when a little old lady turns up dead and the cops confiscate her last paycheck, she’s forced to take on her least favourite kind of job – missing persons.

Being hired by reclusive music producer Odi Huron to find a teenybop pop star should be her ticket out of Zoo City, the festering slum where the criminal underclass and their animal companions live in the shadow of hell’s undertow.

Instead, it catapults Zinzi deeper into the maw of a city twisted by crime and magic, where she’ll be forced to confront the dark secrets of former lives – including her own.

That’s a pretty good description of a book that’s actually quite difficult to describe. It’s perhaps halfway between an urban fantasy and a crime novel with a bit of cyberpunk thrown in, but far different to what I’ve read in any of those genres. When I read it last year – and talked about it on the blog – I noted that, “Fantastical elements aside, Johannesburg comes across as both very familiar and very alien. More importantly, Zinzi is the most real character I’ve read in a long time. This is the sort of thing I want when I read urban fantasy, with its darkness, modernity, edginess and humour. I loved it.”

Maybe this is a bit of a cheat: I’m using the official blurb to tell you about the book and my own review from last year to detail how much I like it. What more can I honestly say though, to persuade you just how good this book is? That it won the Arthur C Clarke award in 2011? That Beukes accepted her award wearing a sloth? That is has more good reviews than you can shake a stick at?

I tend to feel that western urban fantasy just isn’t as fantastical, or even as urban, as I’d like. The cities don’t feel real, the fantasy is bland and forgettable, and there are only so many vampire/werewolf boyfriends I can take. Zoo City was, for me, the perfect antidote to that: properly gritty, and funny, with a brilliant main character and a city (Johannesburg) that feels like it exists beyond the confines of the novel. I can’t really give it any more endorsement, other than to say, go read it!

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