A Book Review: Every Day is for The Thief by Teju Cole

Every Day is for The Thief by Teju Cole is an intellectual and reflective walk through Nigeria. It is a comprehensive view of how people, mostly middle to lower class, eke out a living in the face of the many obvious challenges, trying not to become unstuck. Every Day is an exposition, a collection of descriptive essays and vignettes about Nigerian society. It is a wonderful exploration of words and images as it brings the narrator’s experiences, both in literature and travels, to bear on his observations of Lagos life. He talks about other countries he has visited, other authors he has read, and how those cities and stories reflect on what he is observing. This is a journey into minds.
But our narrator writes like he is a tourist in his own country of origin. He observes, he compares and then he reports. This may be because he is back for the first time after 15 years, reflective of how people in the diaspora who have been away for a while would react upon returning. This state he readily admits: “I have taken into myself some of the assumptions of life in a Western democracy – certain ideas about legality, for instance, certain expectations about due process – and in that sense I have returned a stranger.” Bear this in mind as you read Every Day from beginning to end.

Every Day is a good read. It is a small book of 128 pages that has you saying when you get to the end, “Is that it? Where is the rest of it? I want more.” Teju Cole writes well. His language is lyrical, even poetic at times, and his use of colorful imagery is well-timed and well … imaginative. The narrator is clearly a romantic if he can view a gorge that is “now far from pristine”, that “conforms to a certain Western idea of Africa” … “Africa as a bush and thicket”, and yet “have a sense of a beginning”. But there is something infinitely peaceful about waking up in the very early morning with a hot cup of tea. At times like these, the world is almost perfect. Even in Africa.

The book is also laced with pictures that introduce the theme of the chapter, a great tool to convey the message and also provide aesthetic value. One appreciates the presentation and the writing. Like when, after meeting a young cousin for the first time, the narrator concludes, “The completeness of a child is the most fragile and most powerful thing in the world.” Or “A child’s confidence is the world’s wonder.” The book is littered with such phrasings, making it a joy to read, a wonderful exploration of sounds and an exciting discovery of people and places through pictures and words.

The book chronicles the social machinery of Nigeria and how the system is broken in parts and slowly grinding to a halt in others; this is in spite of the indomitable spirit of the people and because of the apparent lack of compassion from the leadership. The obvious signs include the lack of basic infrastructure and amenities, the blatant corruption that has now graduated to levels of ransom demands, the lack of adequate urban planning, the lack of security, the rising religious bigotry; so many problems, so few solutions, and even less good leaders. One is reminded of the story of how Nero played his harp while Rome burnt. Nigeria is not an easy country to live in and I imagine it is even harder to describe objectively and honestly. Yet Teju Cole manages this quite well and in style.

But Every Day is at times a missed opportunity; A missed opportunity to tell a story. For example, the narrator could have expanded on what caused this permanent rift between him and his mother. Instead, we are left to believe it was her inexplicable long-term grief after his father died that caused him to flee home and country and not speak to his mother ever again. Throughout, we are not too clear on the personality and the character of the narrator, save for one who is merely an observer with the occasional personal experience to report. Another time he tells the story of a younger friend who died tragically but apart from reporting the effect it had on his friend’s family, he could have expanded on whether when he heard while away from home, he reached out as is custom or for one reason or another he could not, one of the issues people in the diaspora have to deal with; That life at home goes on without you. He fails to show how in spite of the hardships, there is life because there is so much happening, and companionship because people are almost always surrounded by friends and family.

The biggest issue I find with the narrator’s summations is that it seems there is almost nothing good about Nigeria beyond a dish of “pounded yam and egusi soup”. He fails to appreciate the most obvious and probably the best one that envelopes him, quite literally, as he gets off the plane; the love of his aunt and uncle as they welcome him with open arms and hearts into their home especially as his dad is late, and his mother is latered.

Every Day is good because not only does Teju Cole report on the issues; he also provides the philosophical context which offer possible solutions. You should read the book.

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