What makes Teju Cole a brilliant novelist is his ability to turn the most minute details into something important and relevant, details that, in other instances, might seem overindulgent and unnecessary. Small details can easily create a story that is slow and boring, but that is exactly what Every Day Is for the Thief is not. These details serve as a close look into the life of a native-born Nigerian who has been living in the United States, and is now experiencing his home country again. Some of the country is reminiscent of his past and the Nigeria he knew, but it has become something more as well. Nigeria has become a place in which he is an outsider. He now sits on the line between the native and the foreigner, feeling neither welcome nor unwelcome, but simply encountering his old home with new eyes.
The narrator of the story, who is not named, expertly takes a snapshot of a place that may be unfamiliar to some, thereby giving the reader the feeling of being right there, in the action. In fact, in some instances, the reader is thrown into a scene without any explanation and must figure out for him or herself, where he has taken the audience and what is happening. At the beginning of chapter 12, the narrator gets into a deep topic of the market and how it serves as a way to acknowledge one’s own existence: “If you sit in your house, if you refuse to go to market, how would you know of the existence of others? How would you know of your own existence?” (57) However, the next line is a new paragraph in which he is “haggling” with some man over masks at the market itself. This man assumes that the narrator doesn’t know the language and so the narrator wonders what body language or dress has given him away as a foreigner. Here, Cole combines two different questions of self existence in the space of two short paragraphs. The reader is left to wonder both about his or her own existence, as well as that feeling of wanting to belong when one is an outsider. These are emotions that all humans have felt in some form or another and can relate to no matter what their experiences might be.
Cole’s style of writing is impressive because although his novel is short, he packs in a wide variety of human experience. His writing often seems to mirror the pictures that he includes throughout the novel–a quick but thorough scene. The book is a collection of short snippets of life in Nigeria, whether that be a trip to the market, an afternoon in an internet cafe, a tour of a museum, an awkward meeting with an old lover, learning of a new part of himself when thrown into a threatening situation, or being tricked into paying more when buying diesel for a generator. Each chapter is brief and unrelated to the others, and yet, they connect in that the narrator is coming in contact with a place he once knew. Like a person that he used to know, he no longer feels the same claim or attachment to this place; it has changed, and so has he.
The narrator, a humanist and writer, finds that one of the most upsetting aspects to Nigerian life is lack of creative outlets. He states: “There is a disconnect between the wealth of stories available here and the rarity of creative refuge” (68). There is so much to be explored in Nigeria, and so much culture and history, but no where to express oneself. Native writers can’t be found on bookshelves in stores, the Nigerian National Museum houses disappointing exhibits, there is a lack of access to music education unless one has money. In this way, Cole proves that his objectives do not include portraying Nigeria in a romanticized way, the way in which some literature and media would like to. The narrator talks of the good and the bad, the proud moments and the disappointment, the candor and the deception; everything that encapsulates the country.
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of Cole’s story is his narrator’s ability to admit his own prejudices. Sly and provocative, he makes his own assumptions and finds himself both wrong and right about them. The narrator is pulled in the balance between being proud of his country and wanting it to be presented in a positive light, and yet also being ashamed and disgusted by some of the practices. While he stereotypes many Nigerians, and Nigerians stereotype him, the reader can see how easy it becomes to judge someone based on outward appearance alone. It prompts the audience to consider its own worldview about others, which is arguably one of the most important aspects to travel and expatriation.
Although the book is considered fiction, it reads as though Cole himself is the narrator. It leaves the reader wondering how much of the novel is Cole’s own experiences. Every Day Is for the Thief is certainly an excellent and mischievous read that challenges the reader to look at other places and people, near and far, with unbiased eyes.
Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole 162 pp. Random House. $23.00