HOW: Bought a-la-carte from Audible.com
WHY: Jeff VanderMeer’s NY Times review; Arthur C. Clarke Award; Kitschies Red Tentacle Award; shortlisted for BSFA; World Fantasy Award nomination; I’m publishing an interview of Beukes in Bull Spec #7; and after I listened to the sample I decided not to wait for the CD review copy set to jump into this discount-priced, full-valued audiobook.
THE STORY: Zinzi December is living in “Zoo City” — a Joburg (Johannesburg, South Africa) ghetto — so named because its residents are “animaled”. In Beukes’s only slightly alternate fantasy reality to our own, those who are guilty of murder are attached to a familiar (a physical spirit animal) which is a literal monkey on their backs. In Zinzi’s case this animal is a sloth. In her boyfriend Benoit’s, it’s a mongoose. Some murderers get butterflies. Others get goldfish. Others get wolves. These things happen.
Zinzi was involved with the murder of her own brother, after racking up a rather large drug debt. Now out of prison, she’s pressed into working as a “Nigerian e-mail scammer” (419 scams) to pay back her debt. She’s quite good at her job, but her true skill — in Beukes’s Joburg, the “animaled” also gain some limited magic of one kind or another — is in finding lost things. She can sense the invisible strings which tie a person to the things they’ve lost, and it’s in picking up a case of this kind — tracking down a ring made from a widow’s late husband’s ashes — that she starts to become entangled in a murder investigation. And she’s brought in by a mysterious music producer and promised to have her debt paid off if she can find even bigger “lost thing” — the girl half of a boy-girl twin Afro-pop teen duo.
Meanwhile, she’s been getting strange, untraceable, unknown e-mails, warning her, advising her.
Her route on the missing persons case takes her to upscale gated communities, rehabilitation centers, nightclubs, ex-lovers, and into plenty of trouble. Her comings and goings, and the reasons why she’s going where and when, can get a bit muddled here for a reader (listener?) who’s not really, really paying attention: “Why is she at this nightclub again? Oh yeah, it is following up on the clue she got from her ex-boyfriend, before things got all diverted by the chase with the porcupine. OK.”
Beukes builds up the dramatic tension, then turns things up to 11 for a finish complete with witch doctors, albino alligators, child soldiers, and Phil Collins. The final conflict is another scene to which absolute attention must be paid — with the use of multiple names to mean the same person (last name, first name, names based on whose familiar belongs to whom) a half-dozen players end up seeming like a score. It’s a scene I both had to — and wanted to — listen to twice to sort out the bodies and the blame.
And, best of all, like so few novels manage, Beukes provides a true-feeling ending which brings so many of these tangled plot threads together in a way that feels natural, while saving just a few nice surprises as well.
THE STRUCTURE: The novel is narrated in first person present: “I say” not “I said.” It’s not a usual voice, but it works quite well here. There are a few other storytelling techniques used, such as e-mails, some newspaper clippings, news reports, and some other bits, creating the multi-media, multi-sourced feel of our crazy, multi-media, multi-sourced world.
THE NARRATION: Justine Eyre is a Canadian-born, Philippine-raised, British-educated, Kiwi-fathered, multi-lingual actress and narrator. (Whew!) This is my first audiobook from her. There are a few narration quirks here and there, and while Eyre does a better job than many who have attempted mainline narration in their non-native accents, from time to time some phrases slip ever so slightly out of accent into something which sounds a little more like southern United States than South Africa. Still, all in all, a wonderful audiobook — while nearer the end of the book her accent feels a little more flat but only just, overall a strongly held accent for the principal narration, with nicely characterized and distinguished accents from other African countries. Of course, this is all coming from someone whose primary exposure to a South African accent is from the film District 9, so…
THE VERDICT: A deservedly highly-praised and award-winning novel has come to audio with a really well-done production, under 10 hours, for just over $7 — a novel which Publishers Weekly just named as one of the best science fiction and fantasy novels of 2011. (Though, I must again insist, this novel was published in 2010!) It’s every bit as good as billed.
RANDOM ASIDE #1: ”1 alligator … 2 alligator … 3 alligator … 4 alligator …”
RANDOM ASIDE #2: This is the second book in as many years which has as part of its composition a focus on child soldiers in the Congo and camps for their rescue and rehabilitiation. (The first was last year’s Children No More by Mark L. Van Name, which was explicitly dedicated to the charity Falling Whistles.)
FURTHER READING: The Zoo City audiobook was also recently reviewed by The Guilded Earlobe. I don’t see any other audiobook reviews yet on Audible.com other than my own.