The Magazine of Ethiopian Airlines

Every Day Is for the Thief

A review of Teju Cole’s first novel.

For a select tier of authors, the mere mention of a new work can create an instant literary buzz. Teju Cole is on that list.

The 38-year-old U.S.-based author, who spent his formative years in Nigeria, has published two books, for which he is widely regarded as one of the most innovative writers of his generation: Every Day Is for the Thief (2007) and Open City (2011).

The announcement that Faber in the U.K. and Random House in the U.S. would republish Every Day Is for the Thief was heralded with anticipation throughout the literary worlds of both countries. Original copies of the book remain difficult to find.

The slim, 128-page novella is a delicate but powerful homage to Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, told through the voice of one of its own. The story has a documentary vibe, as Cole describes the city through a series of observations and conversations with family, friends and locals. The narrator is not quite the author, but very similar. After more than a decade in America, he contemplates his hometown through the eyes of someone who is now less comfortable with the everyday angsts of the contemporary metropolis.

Every Day Is for the Thief gives a vibrant sense of this major world city, but it is no glossy travel guide. This is a “warts and all” companion, a TripAdvisor review written by someone who cares about the place. There are rip-offs at the petrol pumps and massive traffic congestion, hapless museum staff and corrupt officials.

Because of the failing infrastructure, the electricity also comes and goes for hours on end. At first the narrator finds the power cuts almost romantic. But as each property is required to have its own generator — providing an irritating soundtrack to the city — the peace needed to write or just think begins to elude him.

And yet you can still feel the power of a city that delights, as this is where family and a deep connectedness exist. At one point, the narrator comes across a music school for young children — providing an opportunity to nurture the love of music that did not exist when he lived in the country. It’s an opportunity that he believes heralds a hopeful future.

Cole writes so tautly that you have to constantly remind yourself that this is fiction, albeit based on a healthy dose of reality.

If Lagos has not been on your list of places to visit, this brilliant, compelling description of it will make you think again. 

Tricia Wombell is a passionate reader who blogs at Black Book News, which she began in 2010. She is also the coordinator of the Black Reading Group and a co-founder of the biannual literary event Black Book Swap.