Nigerian-American author Teju Cole's Open City (2011) was one of the most exciting US novels in years, and part of the reason it was so exciting was that you were never quite certain that it was a novel. Narrated by Julius, an introspective psychiatrist, as he wanders around Brooklyn, it read like an update of Rousseau's Reveries of a Solitary Walker for the internet age: digressive and essayistic but full of the pleasures of fiction.
Every Day is for the Thief - the title derives from a Yoruba proverb - was actually Cole's debut; it was first published in Nigeria in 2007. Like Open City it is a fictionalised travelogue, but here the presence of embedded black and white photographs heightens the sense of realism. The unnamed narrator returns to his native Nigeria from America, launching "an inquiry into what I longed for whenever I longed for home".
As he navigates the broiling streets of Lagos, he describes the chaos and corruption he encounters. But there are also redemptive moments of beauty and kindness. The restrained, elegant prose is enlivened by striking similes; when the narrator spots a beautiful woman on a bus reading Michael Ondaatje - one of his favourites - the sight makes his heart "thrash about like a catfish in a bucket".
The book has its limitations. Writing under the guise of fiction blunts the social criticism - it allows us to question whether some of the more troubling episodes really happened. And Cole never fully exploits the possibilities of the form in order to develop character; there is nothing here to match the brilliant dramatic reversal in Open City, when we begin to suspect that Julius's erudition disguises a darkness within. But this lean, intriguing work nevertheless provides further evidence, if any were needed, that Cole is a true original.
Every Day is for the Thief
Faber, pbk, 176 pages, £8.99
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