A review of Every Day Is for the Thief, by Teju Cole
A Nigerian man, who has spent several years living in America, travels home to visit his family. While he’s there, he immerses himself in the streets of Lagos, a city that has grown unfamiliar, as he wonders whether he could return home permanently.
From the start, Teju Cole’s second book is teeming with rich descriptions of life in Nigeria. But returning to the country he left years earlier has a disquieting effect on Cole’s unnamed protagonist. He has become more westernised than he realised, and his eyes are opened to the rampant corruption that afflicts the country before he has even left the Nigerian consulate in New York with his hard won passport.
Less of a narrative, more a series of anecdotes and observations, Every Day Is for the Thief gives the reader a snapshot of a Lagos where bribery is commonplace. Traffic police stop drivers, hinting for a hand out, whilst the local ‘area boys’ demand money from anyone operating on their turf. Customs officials, shop keepers, baggage handlers, everyone is looking for a way to make money.
Modern technology has only served to provide another avenue for this, with the city’s internet cafes home to hoards of young men, many practising the kind of email scams that occasionally trap unsuspecting Westerners.
Despite its lack of linear story, this book progresses smoothly from moment to moment, engaging and capturing memories and the effect they have on the protagonist. From his journey on a public bus, where he glimpses a young woman reading a Michael Ondaatje novel and is desperate to talk to her before she disappears, wondering where she could possibly have bought such a book, an expensive import, out of reach of the average Nigerian. Or the description of an eleven-year-old boy, caught by a mob after he steals a woman’s bag in a shopping centre, beaten and burned alive in the street. Life goes on around these snatches of humanity, traffic rerouting around the child’s corpse like a river flowing around a temporary obstacle.
As the narrator, a man with a desire to write, wanders the city, he examines the culture it has to offer and wonders whether a writer would have any chance of flourishing there.
Seen through the eyes of a man struggling with his own displacement, the city becomes a seething mass of humanity, all climbing across each other in the struggle to get on and take their share of the country’s wealth, closing their eyes to its corruption.
A beautifully observed novella, written with a photographer’s eye for detail.
Find out more about the book:
Every Day is for the Thief on Amazon (affiliate link)
Every Day Is for the Thief on Goodreads
Disclaimer: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley for the purpose of review, but all opinions are my own.