55 pages 1 hour read

Lauren Beukes

Zoo City

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2010

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Summary and Study Guide


Zoo City is a 2010 fantasy/science fiction novel by Lauren Beukes; it won the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award. In an alternate version of Johannesburg, South Africa, people who have committed serious crimes find themselves attached to animal familiars that grant them magical abilities—and mark their criminality for all to see. First-person narrator Zinzi December is accompanied by a Sloth. She uses her shavi (magical power) to locate lost things. Zinzi’s narration alternates with textual artifacts from her culture—movie reviews, gossip columns, academic papers, and first-person interviews—that shed light on the novel’s magical world and the history of the animal phenomenon.

Plot Summary

Zinzi splits her time between looking for lost things—her legitimate business—and a side hustle that involves sending scam emails on behalf of a crime syndicate to which she owes money from her days a junkie. She has settled into a routine with Benoît, her boyfriend of five years who is also animalled and does not know about the phishing emails. Everything changes when Zinzi goes to deliver a lost ring to her client Mrs. Luditsky and discovers her client has been murdered. At the scene, she meets two mysterious animalled figures: Mark (The Maltese) and Amina (The Marabou).

Mark and Amira ask Zinzi’s help to find a missing person. At first, Zinzi refuses; she prefers to search for lost objects rather than lost people. Following a series of events—the police confiscate her deposit from Mrs. Luditsky because they suspect Zinzi of murder; her scam-email handler, Vuyo, forces her to help him persuade a few marks to give up the last of their life savings; Benoît locates his long-lost wife and children and plans to leave Zinzi to find them—and owing to her substantial drug debts, she changes her mind and accepts the job. Mark and Amira take her to Odi Huron, a famously reclusive music producer who wants her to look for his client Songweza, one-half of the pop duo iJusi.

Zinzi uses skills and connections from her former life as a journalist to launch the search. She reconnects with her old boyfriend, Gio, the journalist who got her started using drugs. When she finds Song, the girl claims that Mark and Amira are taking her against her will. Zinzi accepts payment from Odi, but only after accusing him of abusing his young client.

Zinzi begins to suspect that strange emails received by her scam account are from animalled people have been murdered. She begins to investigate the murdered humans and seek the whereabouts of their animal familiars. As she puts the pieces together, she realizes that Amira and Mark are framing her for something. She escapes before the police apprehend her, and gets a voicemail from Song and S’bu’s friend alerting her that something has happened to the twins.

Zinzi drives to the twins’ home and finds it in flames. Not convinced the twins are dead, she sets off with Benoît to Odi’s house, where a Crocodile attacks Benoît. Revealed as mashavi, Odi is trying to rid himself of his Crocodile familiar with Mark and Amira’s help. They perform a ritual using the stolen animals of the murdered mashavi, encouraging a drugged-up Song and S’bu to fight each other with knives. After S’bu kills his sister, thus becoming a criminal, Amira transfers the Crocodile to S’bu and then kills him. A few minutes later, the Crocodile turns on Odi and kills him, too.

Mark and Amira escape as Zinzi waits for help. A newspaper article reveals the true culprits, although Zinzi remains under investigation. She flees for the Zimbabwe border to find Benoît’s family as he convalesces from his magical wounds.