This is African sci-fi. Its set in a future dystopic Johannesburg. The premise is brilliant: certain people, who have committed crimes, have seen their guilt suddenly become manifest in the shape of animals. They need to remain close to these animals, or they suffer excruciating pain, and they develop close relationships to these creatures.
These people are known as the animaled, and some of the best parts of the book are the Wikipedia and IMDB entries inserted at random on the subject. We learn that one Aghan warlord has a penguin, a famous rapper has a hyena (later revealed to have just been a prop, intended to make him seem dangerous), and that as punishment in Indian jails, the animals are separated from the animaled.
Our lead character is a woman who is animaled with a sloth. She travels through Joburg trying to find a lost teenager she has been employed to locate, and we get to see much of Joburg re-imagined. Here is on one thing that has not changed in this imagined future: the walls of middle class homes
Not so much keeping the world out as keeping the festering middle class paranoia in.
The difficulty in this novel is unfortunately the plot. It’s long and complex, and full of characters we don’t care about. It’s an unavoidable truth that premises are often easier than plots, and it’s a truth that often trips up the sci-fi writer. Lauren Beukes creates a great world, with interesting characters, but, in may opinion, fails to string them together. All the same, I very much admire this book. It’s an attempt at a difficult genre in an unusual setting, and is a real contribution to the contemporary literature of our large continent.