Reading Every Day is for the Thief is like stepping inside a literary Memento. We met Teju Cole in 2012 when Open City won or was shortlisted for every literary prize I can think of. Open City was called a debut novel but that’s not quite accurate. We have to look backwards to see what was first. In Every Day is for the Thief we meet Cole the photographer, Cole the lyricist, and we meet the city of Lagos without the romantic gloss that’s often applied to African cities in fiction.
The book was published in 2007 in Nigeria but only just published outside of Africa this year. The story goes that Cole wrote a series of thirty blog posts over thirty days to help make sense of a trip he had just taken to Lagos. He edited and shaped the thirty posts into the twenty-seven chapters in his debut novel.
The reviews I’ve read have focused on the Cole’s shaping of language and his unflinching depiction of Africa. I was most struck by Cole’s treatment of the idea of home. His unnamed narrator wants to be an insider in Lagos but though he thinks he looks the part the local people address him as though he’s an American; monied, different. The narrator is as enraged by the corruption he sees in his home country as he is desperate to belong in the homeland he remembers from his childhood. He knows the country has changed and not for the better, he is disgusted but he craves it. He wants to move there, thinks it will inspire him and inspire his work but knows he will return to America where there is a chance he can make himself into a man who can make real change. In Cole’s real debut novel we learn that you can go back from whence you came but you can’t go back to the home you remember.