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Thu Apr 24 03:38:32 SAST 2014

A mystery tour of Jozi's magic

Matthew Du Plessis | 03 June, 2010 23:390 Comments
Matthew du plessis
Matthew du plessis

Matthew Du Plessis: When the stars are aligned, and the fates and furies sufficiently distracted, I sometimes find that I have the space and the time to enjoy a good book.

And I'm pleased to report that Zoo City, the novel I devoured this week past, is so mightily good that you have to go read it right away. No, not just-now, NOW!

Considering you are still reading, I assume you have despatched a minion of some kind to buy, borrow, or possibly steal you a copy.

To pass the time while we wait, I'll fill you in on some of the finer details.

The new novel from Lauren Beukes, novelist, doer of TV shows, darling of South Africa's twitter-literati, is a thing of magic, wit and wonder.

Pegged squarely in and around the whole of the greater Johannesburg metropolitan area, it's a thriller of supernatural proportions, a whodunnit to make Raymond Chandler squirm, and a meditation on the social and economic divisions that characterise everyday urban life in South Africa that almost certainly won't make you roll your eyes on account of having heard it all before.

Because you've never heard it like this before.

The world is as it is, except in the past decade a very strange thing has happened. Whosoever commits a great sin or crime is rewarded not only with whatever punishments society sees fit to bestow upon them, but also a material burden they must bear - a spirit companion of sorts. A fetch. A familiar.

Staking out metaphysical terrain somewhere between Philip Pullman's Dark Materials and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, these Animals appear out of nowhere. A murderer might find himself bonded to a Bear; a thief with a Scorpion; a crack whore with a Sparrow; an Afghan warlord with a Penguin.

Should the Animal die, so too does their person. Horrifically. Inevitably. They are a curse and a burden; but they bring gifts, too.

Zinzi December's gift, which arrived with the Sloth she is now bound to, lets her find things that people have lost. It's an ability that helps pay such bills as she has, living as an outcast in an inner-city squat. But it's also a gift that draws her into a tangly net of intriguing webs, where distinguishing the spider from the fly is . tricky.

But her streetwise sass and hard-won smarts - not to mention Sloth, her beastly burden - might well see Zinzi through the murders, mysteries and madness that lie ahead of her.

Zoo City is a story of mysteries unfolding, and it is a story well told. But it's the world around the story, and the words that guide us through, that make it something more than simply marvellous.

With her subtle, intimate descriptions of the roads we walk in this crazy city; with characters so deeply twisty you could lose a giant squid in their nebulous hidey holes, and with turns of phrase that are as likely to conjure up Rudyard Kipling, Brenda Fassie or Credo Mutwa as they are to invoke Japanese anime, Doctor Who or the crack in Johnny Cash's voice as he sings of his greatest loss, this canny authoress has brought real magic to everyday life in Jozi, in what I'm afraid I really am going to end off by describing as an act of unadulterated literature.

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