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Every Day Is for the Thief

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A young Nigerian writer living in New York City returns to Lagos in search of a subject-and himself.

Visiting Lagos after many years away, Teju Cole's unnamed narrator rediscovers his hometown as both a foreigner and a local. A young writer uncertain of what he wants to say, the man moves through tableaus of life in one of the most dynamic cities in the world: he hears the muezzin's call to prayer in the early morning light, and listens to John Coltrane during the late afternoon heat. He witnesses teenagers diligently perpetrating e-mail frauds from internet cafes, longs after a woman reading Michael Ondaatje on a public bus, and visits the impoverished National Museum. Along the way, he reconnects with old school friends and his family, who force him to ask himself profound questions of personal and national history. Over long, wandering days, the narrator compares present-day Lagos to the Lagos of his memory, and in doing so reveals changes that have taken place in himself.

128 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2007

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About the author

Teju Cole

40 books1,045 followers
I was born to Nigerian parents and grew up in Lagos. My mother taught French. My father was a business executive who exported chocolate. The first book I read (I was six) was an abridgment of Tom Sawyer. At fifteen I published cartoons regularly in Prime People, Nigeria’s version of Vanity Fair. Two years later I moved to the United States.

Since then, I’ve spent most of my time studying art history, except for an unhappy year in medical school. I currently live in Brooklyn.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 885 reviews
Profile Image for Michael.
655 reviews966 followers
February 24, 2019
An essayistic novel about Nigerian identity, Every Day is for the Thief surveys the social and cultural life of the West African nation. The book follows a young Nigerian writer as he returns to his homeland after coming of age abroad, but neither plot nor character is the author’s main focus; Cole instead prioritizes sketching an empathetic portrait of Nigeria over the course of twenty-seven fast-moving chapters. In each chapter, or essay, the narrator, a clear stand-in for the author, describes his daily routine in Lagos, considers how the city has changed since his childhood, and recounts different facets of the country’s history. The collective takes precedent over the personal, and the narrator’s journey is anything but unique. While the book feels a bit short, Cole is consistently insightful and engaging, whether he’s discussing the rise of internet cafes in Nigeria, critiquing political corruption, or reflecting on what the nation’s future might look like.
Profile Image for Jill.
1,169 reviews1,645 followers
March 7, 2014
Since the publicist’s blurb is misleading, let me first define what Every Day Is for the Thief REALLY is. It’s an older work by Teju Cole, published in 2007 in Africa. It’s fiction only in the loosest sense; in reality, it’s a short book (the size of a novella) that reads partially like a travelogue or an analysis of the Nigerian psyche

What the publicist gets right is that it’s very, very good. As Teju Cole displayed in Open City, he definitely has writing chops. His seamless insights, well-crafted prose and sense of storytelling are just spectacular. My review is based on what this book really IS, rather than what it is presented to be.

Teju Cole – or his narrator (I suspect there’s a lot of blending) – cast an unsparing look at life in Nigeria. He writes this: “Nigeria was declared the most religious country in the world. Nigerians were found to be the world’s happiest people, and in Transparency International’s 2005 assessment, Nigeria was ranked sixth from the bottom out of the 158 countries assessed in the corruption perceptions index. Religion, corruption, happiness.”

All three of these ingredients are on high display in this slight book,a travelogue, really, providing an insider’s view about life in Nigeria. When the narrator arrives back in Lagos after an extended stay in New York, he gets to experience his country’s creative, malevolent, ambiguous energies again with new eyes.

Corruption is rampant and bribes are omnipresent. The tragic past – from slavery to dictatorship – is buried. (The narrator muses, “What, I wonder, are the social consequences of life in a country that has no use for history?”) A constant sense of foreboding about the fragility of life is constantly present. Supernatural explanations are favored for the most ordinary events. Yet through all this, there’s a sense of hope: the narrator glimpses a young woman on a bus reading Michael Ondaatje, for example.

Since this book was written seven years ago, it’s hard to tell what has changed; I wish an update had been added. The author (or narrator) deplore the lack of Nigerian and African writers but in the past year or two, there has been a renaissance of extraordinary debut writing: A. Igoni Barrett, Aminatta Forna, Okey Ndibe, NoViolet Bulawayo, Chinelo Okparanta and others that I’ve read and loved. There may be other changes as well. Still, there’s no taking away from the fact that Teju Cole writes magnificently. I look forward to his next book of TRUE fiction.

Profile Image for Tony.
906 reviews1,516 followers
January 15, 2016
(Thank you Goodreads giveaways!)

This is called 'Fiction' but don't believe it. It seems to parallel the author's own life: born in the U.S., raised in Nigeria, back to the U.S. and then a return to Nigeria. So it has a Memoir quality. There is nothing of a novel about it which would require: a) plot; b) character development; or c) both a & c. This has d) none of the above.

Instead, this has a travelogue feel to it. There is fine, minimalist writing and really artful black and white photos taken by the author, pictures much too clear for Sebald. So this is a book of snapshots, both pictorial and literary, of the modern state of Nigeria. Oblique but powerful.

By sheer coincidence (because I won this book), I read this just weeks after finishing Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. That timing proved fortunate because the history of Nigeria I learned from Adichie was very helpful. This one is current events, not history. So, I learned a lot, and in a more searing way than a Wikipedia search.

In lieu of traditional fiction devices Cole offers, instead, self-congratulation, which annoyed a bit. There is danger in 'the market', he tells us, but:

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?

This led to an odd critique of American authors:

I suddenly feel a vague pity for all those writers who have to ply their trade from sleepy American suburbs, writing divorce scenes symbolized by the very slow washing of dishes. Had John Updike been African, he would have won the Nobel Prize twenty years ago. I feel sure that his material hobbled him. Shillington, Pennsylvania, simply did not measure up to his extravagant gifts.

In case you missed that: Cole, a first time author of what amounts to a Newsweek piece, feels 'a vague pity' for John Updike because Updike never got to vacation in Lagos. (I wish Cole had said that to Sen. Lloyd Bentsen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-7gpg... )

In any event, having returned to Nigeria (unlike John Updike), Cole is moved to Hamlet doubt:

I am not going to move back to Lagos. No way. I don't care if that, too, is a contribution to the atmosphere of surrender.

I am going to move back to Lagos. I must.

If only Shakespeare had journeyed to Africa. He might have found something to write about other than the Macbeth's divorce. He might even have won a Nobel.
Profile Image for Kai Spellmeier.
Author 6 books13.6k followers
January 12, 2022
"The mind roams more widely in the dark than it does in the light."

Every Day is for the Thief reads like a tourist guide that tells you to better stay far away from Lagos. There is corruption at every corner, everybody wants your money, thieves at the market are either kicked to death or burned, and the museum isn't worth visiting anyway. What makes all of this even more strange is that the main character is Nigerian-born who left to study and work in the USA. When he returns to Nigeria many years later, he is estranged from his country, an outsider. And as he walks through the city and paints its picture, he reveals in a simplistic and insightful style, how diaspora has shaped and changed him.

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Profile Image for Julie Ehlers.
1,111 reviews1,397 followers
December 10, 2019
Like Friend of My Youth, which I read earlier this year, Every Day Is for the Thief is autofiction (seems like nonfiction, but it supposedly isn't, but might be anyway) about a writer who returns to the homeland he left behind years before. In both books the narrator spends his time revisiting places from his younger days, reminiscing about an often sad past, meeting up with old friends, and despairing at all that has changed (mostly as a result of capitalism). As with Friend of My Youth, it took me a while to really get into the pace and structure of this book, but once I did I enjoyed this slice-of-life view of Lagos. The tales of corruption were equal parts fascinating and depressing, but what really interested me were the more day-to-day stories of visits to museums and shops, of nightly power outages, of trips on public transportation. This is the Lagos you likely won't see as a tourist; under the able guidance of Cole you get the insider's view.
Profile Image for Lee Klein .
800 reviews851 followers
May 12, 2015
Surprisingly compelling, quick, episodic, autobiographical reportage. I wasn't able to make it through the author's first novel -- thought it was too mannered, too falsely Sebaldian. But this, addled with facts and photos, feels absolutely real, albeit not a proper novel. A labyrinth (not a maze) in which the author finds himself and his home city in its center. Worth it for the chapter on the ubiquitous Nigerian e-mail scam and the OMG immolation of a young thief. Loved the assertion that if John Updike had been from and written about Lagos instead of Shillington, PA, he would have won the Nobel Prize twenty years before he died. Definitely worth a look -- will probably try "Open City" again.
Profile Image for Princess.
233 reviews24 followers
January 2, 2018
I wanted to like this book. Really, I did. After all, Teju Cole is an impressive writer, and when I read an excerpt from this work a couple of years ago, I was swept along on a tide of awe. Teju could write. What precise descriptions! What elegant sentences!

But I have endured a mounting dismay as I’ve read this book. The premise is that a young Nigerian emigrant returns to Nigeria after fifteen years away in order to recapture some of his past. He toys with the idea of making his return permanent, and in so doing takes on an outsider-insider perspective as he re-examines a culture with which he is no longer fully familiar. He is disillusioned by the corruption he finds, the religious fundamentalism, the general willingness to settle for what is “good enough,” but he is also fascinated by the almost animal instinct to fight and survive that he sees everywhere. He is unimpressed by the country’s lack of “culture” – the National Museum is in poor condition, the bookshops in Lagos are sorely lacking in literary fiction or a fair representation of local Nigerian writers; of the jazz shops he visits, he is impressed by only one – an expensive Western-style store that has a good selection of both music and literary fiction. In simple terms, he observes and criticizes Nigeria through a Westerner’s lens. He asks: why can’t Nigeria be like America or Europe? This is an important project, because it would seem that a Nigerian, who has lived outside of Nigeria for some time, would be in the best position to offer a careful critique of the country’s culture and government. Certainly, he is an erudite narrator, seamlessly blending literary and musical references, and historical anecdotes. But his tone is hectoring. Even if a subtitle on the first page of the book indicates that Every Day is for the Thief is supposed to be fiction, one loses this sense when one observes the photographs that appear at the end of almost every chapter and acknowledges that this is not a traditional novella, but a platform for the narrator (and perhaps, even the author) to outline his grievances with Nigeria (and maybe, indulge his penchant for photography). Occasionally, there is a glimpse of fictive potential, such as when the narrator observes a woman on a bus (she is reading one of his favorite authors) and contemplates having a conversation with her. But the woman disappears into the crowd and the potential for unselfconscious narrative is lost. Worse, very rarely are the sentences in this book appealing. They are clean, certainly. They paint sharp visuals of what the narrator observes, but they are not particularly beautiful because they do not combine insight with poetry (a talent that Teju Cole demonstrates in his much longer and more impressive work, Open City).

Perhaps, to be fair, I should point out that this was TC’s first work of fiction. The narrator in Every Day is for the Thief is the narrator in Open City. Like a friend has pointed out, perhaps TC was merely prepping for Open City with this book. But I could not help wanting more. What a wonderful book this would have been if the narrator’s political agenda had been presented in tandem with more literary experimentation (more beautiful sentences, and more scenes where the narrator takes part instead of standing apart and aloof). How much more powerful if more than simply critique, the narrator had spent more time celebrating the parts of Nigerian life and society that he appreciated. Of course, it is no good to simply romanticize the idea or reality of home (I say this as an immigrant), but to dismiss home’s potential by viewing it through a strictly Western lens is to do home a major disservice. Nigeria (or any other African country, really) cannot be like America or Europe because of different factors, including but not limited to: history, topography, tribe and language.

Three stars, because this is very capable writing (and I’m a Teju Cole fan), but no, I did not like this book.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,738 reviews14.1k followers
February 1, 2014
I believe this is the third book in the last two weeks that I have read that featured an unnamed narrator. So our unnamed narrator returns to his home city Lagos, after a fifteen year absence and he finds so many things that are different. He meets a first cousin, a young lady who was born just before he left the country and he hopes that the country stays together for her sake. He is amazed at the corruption going on everywhere, where people who have jobs are either never paid or paid so little what they can pad their pockets with make a difference between starving or living. He see schemes and plots, police officers arresting people and then letting them go after they have paid enough to the policeman's satisfaction. The cost of graft is just figured into the cost of the item, or the favor the person needs done.

In a country with only a 57%percent literacy rate he is amazed to see a young woman reading a challenging work by Michael Ondaatjie and finds the vision incongruous with the rickety bus they are on.

Our unnamed narrator is a keen observer, and he shows the reader what it is like to return to a place and find so much changed and even things that have not. The first things I noted when I started reading this short book was the smoothness of his writing. He writes as matter of fact as one speaking. I loved ht pictures included, helped readers not familiar with this country to picture exactly what he is seeing. Never read his first book which I know has won many awards, will most likely seek that one out.

ARC from publisher.
Profile Image for Nnedi.
Author 151 books15.1k followers
July 7, 2014
I read this in two days, I was so addicted to it. It reads more like a travelogue and isn't big on character development, but what an honest full-bodied portrayal of Lagos, Nigeria. It had me laughing hard, sucking my teeth with annoyance, and blushing with pride, and one scene had me crying (it touched on a painful memory of something I have witnessed in Nigeria, as well). I want Teju to write more stories set in Lagos. I'd LOVE to see him write that story set in a Lagos 50 years from now. ;-)

Note: This novella was originally published in Nigeria by Cassava Republic
Profile Image for Imade (Bridge Four).
30 reviews60 followers
November 17, 2016
I came into this book, expecting little and I was not disappointed. Throughout this book, it felt like the writer was trying too hard to be both an observer of and a participator in events, without really being either. The moments I enjoyed in the story where when the narrator was most authentic and vulnerable, without being so eager to pass judgement and preach from his soap box of privilege. I wish there'd been more moments like that.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,050 followers
June 1, 2014
I previously read Open City and really liked it, and this book seems new but was actually published in Nigeria back in 2007, and pre-dates Open City. I think you can tell. There are moments of really great writing but the story of returning home to Nigeria is told in fragments and snippets, illustrated by photos that were taken at a later date by the author. Some of it used to be on the author's blog, from a trip he took back to Africa a few years ago.

The story is likely semi-autobiographical although I haven't found anywhere that has the author claiming it as his own (and his blog only lives in internet archivedom). I'm fascinated by this idea of "returning home," since I will shortly be doing the same, just not to Nigeria. How much can you or the place you left change before neither is anywhere near the same? The narrator has the strange experience of belonging to Lagos as a child but being immediately identified as an outsider as a returned adult. This had definite similarities to Americanah by Adichie. Funny that both books are about Nigerians who have lived in the UK and USA returning home to a Nigeria that they no longer recognize and that they no longer fit inside.

Some little snippets to give a taste of the writing, which to me is the best part:

"The market - as the essence of the city - is always alive with possibility and danger. Strangers encounter each other in the world's infinite variety; vigilance is needed. Everyone is there not merely to buy or sell, but because it is a duty. 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?"

"The air in the strange, familiar environment of this city is dense with story, and it draws me into thinking of life as stories.... All I have to do is prod gently, and people open up."

"The problem used to only be the leadership. But now, when you step out into the city, your oppressor is likely to be your fellow citizen, his ethics eroded by years of suffering and life at the cusp of desperation."

"I am not going to move back to Lagos. No way. I don't care if there are a million untold stories. I don't care if that, too, is a contribution to the atmosphere of surrender. I am going back to Lagos. I must... No sense emerges of the combat between art and messy reality."

Discussed on Episode 5 of the Reading Envy podcast!
Profile Image for Mmars.
525 reviews97 followers
May 9, 2014
While I cannot say I liked having to constantly remind myself that this was fiction and not some sort of nonfiction travelogue, I give kudos to both the author and publisher for giving us a creative publication. Each chapter presents a separate experience a young man has while visiting his native Nigeria several years after emigrating and studying in the United States. Anyone who visits a childhood home they have not seen for a period of time can relate to the narrator's feelings of detachment, longing, loss, and change. Cole doesn't linger on feelings though, rather, he shows the reader the country as it is now. And that is enough. The reader learns a lot about modern Nigeria and much of it is disturbing.

This week (5/2014) Nigeria is in the headlines. 200 girls have been kidnapped and President Obama is putting resources in to help find the girls. In this book it seems that corruption and violence are rampant, nearly to the point of being symptomatic. And now, today, it is clear the Nigerian President is helpless. What can the U.S. accomplish? I/we can only hope for the best.

The book also contains black and white photographs by the author. They are often slightly blurred or grainy. The people are indiscriminate. I loved these. They intensified the mood, but they didn't show or tell me anything.....they are art.

A unique book. Recommended without reservations.
Profile Image for Skip.
3,288 reviews395 followers
July 11, 2015
3 stars is generous. A unnamed narrator returns to his native Nigeria having fled his country for the U.S. following a long, self-imposed absence. He finds a country wallowing in economic stagnation due to corruption everywhere because workers do not earn enough from jobs to survive. The story is told in a series of vignettes as the narrator travels in his former homeland. Sadly, Cole does not develop his protagonist (the narrator) enough, and what little is conveyed is done via his reconnecting with friends and family and the alienation from his mother. I liked some of the photographs he took in Nigeria, but thought they could have been better integrated with his travels.
Profile Image for Yair Ben-Zvi.
320 reviews84 followers
June 2, 2019
Teju Cole's greatest achievement in this novel is a pitch perfect mastery of passionate interaction and cool, almost professorial, detachment. Cole's connection to his homeland is one of love and trepidation; his Nigeria, as specified through Lagos, is a nation brimming with untapped potential, superseded only by the nation's lachrymose history and corrupt modern leadership. Cole shows us perfect reasoning for the hopeful dread he creates.

The only thing that keeps this novel from a five star is that, much like Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Cole pulls back just a little too much. There is definitely an attraction to the novel's brief and compact execution but a few more deeper dives into some integral character histories (the protagonist's former girlfriend, his mother, his father) would have given the narrative that last bit of heft to really ground the story as being a bit more personal and equal to its figurative weight.

But that's a small imperfection. Otherwise this is a stellar work and I very much look forward to reading more of Cole's work.
Profile Image for Ellie.
1,475 reviews372 followers
October 7, 2019
Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole is the story of a Nigerian who has emigrated to the United States (New York City, to be specific)to become a doctor. He returns to visit family and friends and is faced with a country he both is deeply attached to and repelled by. He laments Nigeria's chaos, corruption, refusal of history while he is pulled by his past and his connections to this country. He admires the people, struggling with tremendous economic difficulties but impatient with the replacement of easy hopes for confrontation with issues and the acceptance of what he see as unacceptable.

I loved Cole's previous book, Open City which tells the story of a Nigerian immigrant in New York City, struggling to make a life. Every Day is for the Thief deals primarily with the issues of Nigeria while the character of the narrator is only slightly explored whereas the previous book explored the character of the narrator at greater depth. I missed that note but it is clear that the character of Nigeria, its personality and relationship with its citizens, including the narrator, is the primary one in this work.

Cole is a gifted writer and his books provide a fascinating look at the struggle of the immigrant in various settings and explore the complex relationships with both the old and the new.

Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Andrew.
1,992 reviews699 followers
March 9, 2021
A while ago, I read Teju Cole's American debut, Open City, and remember thinking of it as the work of a young writer with a lot of interesting ideas, but a fundamentally immature voice. Turns out his ideas were developed much better and in a more interesting fashion in this earlier work, published in Nigeria. Maybe this says something about the American publishing industry. Maybe it says something about sophomore slumps. But I do know that I liked Every Day Is for the Thief significantly more, and that might have been the way that Cole's presumed stand-in narrator, as a Nigerian-American, can guide me as a reader who's been nowhere near Nigeria to some understanding of the experience of a very, very different society from the perspective of a semi-outsider himself. Maybe it's the sort of plainspoken prose and Sebaldian wandering (far better Sebaldian wandering than in Open City). All I know is that I really liked this curious, compact novel about the subtlety of perception and modern West Africa.
Profile Image for endrju.
105 reviews37 followers
February 24, 2014
I've never read Cole before even though I saw that his later work has drawn much attention so I thought this would be a good introduction. However, it doesn't quite work. It quite often turns to rather preachy tone all with exact percentages, not to mention that some remarks (about how music piracy stifles creativity (seriously?!)) are borderline ludicrous given that a couple of pages before or after he writes about how people are being killed in the middle of the street, burned to death even. I understand what he writes about since I grew up in society that has been falling apart in a very similar way to Nigerian state, so I can with a lot of certainty say that music piracy (again - seriously?!) is the last thing to worry about. With that said, there are bursts of beautiful prose once the urge to critique subsides, and that almost makes it up for the rest of the novel.
Profile Image for Sarah.
1,212 reviews35 followers
July 28, 2018
4.5 rounded up

This was unlike anything I've ever read -- it reads like a non-fiction account of the narrator returning home to Nigeria after 15 years in the US and his observations as someone who has gained an outside perspective of the country but with an inside background knowledge with which to analyse it from.

I don't know if this is autobiographical at all, and I kind of don't want to, as I enjoyed this unique reading experience of a (perhaps) fictionalised travelogue. The narrator recounts his experiences traveling around Lagos where he does some sightseeing, helps out his relatives and just spends time reacquainting himself with his home country. As someone who has experienced a similar thing - although I did live abroad for a shorter time than the narrator - I found this resonated with me and I really enjoyed reading his insights in Nigeria and its culture. The main thing I took away from this was how prevalent and normalised corruption is in Nigeria - the opening scene in the passport office in New York was particularly memorable. An incredibly enjoyable and eye-opening read about a country I knew very little about.
Profile Image for Patrice Hoffman.
553 reviews259 followers
September 12, 2018
I finished Teju Cole's Every Day is for the Thief about a week ago. Before I dive into my review of this title I will lay down a little background for how I got here, to this title. I'm currently a working adult, part-time student that is basically starting over, beginning from the ground up to obtain an Associate's degree and then a Bachelor's degree. I'm super late in attempting this arduous journey but I need my receipts. My current employer is amazing and I have worked my way up. I love what I do but I'm not comfortable, meaning, I want to prepare for the day I may need to compete in a job market where you need a Bachelor's just to get through the door at Starbucks.


After taking a Sociology class my first semester back in school, I became inspired to learn more about the world and other cultures. Most importantly, I've been inspired to seek more diversity in my reading. In this effort, I decided to take a Non-Western Literature course. Teju Cole's Every Day is for the Thief was our first tromp into literature that was written by a non-white person.

Now... suffice it to say we dived pretty deep into this novel but my review will be high-level, as usual.

After fifteen years of being in America, we meet the unnamed narrator as he begins his journey back to his birthplace of Nigeria, more specifically the city of Lagos. For those who may not know, Nigeria is about the size of California with a population that's growing at an astounding rate. Lagos, the biggest city in Nigeria holds the most residents like most major cities in the States.

The unnamed narrator takes us along as he reacquaints his self with the home he left behind. What he finds is a world of corruption, chaos, and ultimately behind.

I've glanced at a few reviews that tout this read as a travel guide of sorts but really there is so much more here. The depths and insight that our narrator shares with us won't allow me to devalue it's philosophical weight. The narrator is surrounded by actions that cause him to loathe the country of his birth. These instances also change the narrator for the worse, rightfully so.

Although I enjoyed reading this title, I couldn't help but become annoyed with how unfair the narrator is to Nigeria. Yes, I understand the bribes are shit. The government corruption is an unfair challenge. Living on wages that barely cover the bare necessities is appalling. Yet, the narrator walks around and compares much of Nigeria's offerings to those of the Western world. When he goes into an art gallery that was obviously pillaged due to the corrupt government, he would rather compare the shortcomings of that gallery as opposed to realizing that Nigeria (when compared to the Western powers) is still a relatively new country. They are left to contend with the effects of life after British colonization...

Either way...

I found the narrator to be quite arrogant. As he takes you along this visit it becomes obvious that he is from a privileged family, living relatively comfortably behind the gates of their housing community.

It's not his fault, I know that much. I just wish he wasn't so hard on Nigeria. Yes I realize life there is hard. It's dangerous and sucks for a lot (although they would never admit it) but I would rather not denigrate them for their shortcomings.

Ultimately, Cole's Every Day is for the Thief was a fast read. It was hard not to get sucked into the journey. Our unnamed narrator is flawed and his viewpoint is all we have to contend with which is why I couldn't give this title more than 3 stars. Cole's writing is descriptive, philosophical, and engaging but it falls short on making me like the narrator.

Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,612 reviews2,581 followers
June 18, 2014
More a photojournalistic essay or travelogue than a novella, but no less insightful for it. Though released after Open City in the West, this is actually Cole’s first book, published in Nigeria in 2007. The narrator (never named) is a mixed-race psychiatry student in New York City who travels back to Nigeria after 15 years. “Each time I am sure that, in returning to Lagos, I have inadvertently wandered into a region of hell, something else emerges to give me hope.” That ambivalence animates the book: this man is both at home and a stranger; both horrified and heartened by what he sees. “The place exerts an elemental pull on me. There is no end of fascinations...There is venality in abundance here, and the general air of surrender, of helplessness, is the most heartbreaking thing about it.”

The title is taken from a Yoruba proverb, quoted as an epigraph: “Every day is for the thief, but one day is for the owner.” I can’t claim to know precisely what that means, but the theme of theft runs throughout. The narrator encounters dishonesty and bribery everywhere he goes; even before he leaves New York, he is forced to hand over an extra $55 at the consulate if he wants his Nigerian passport processed within the three weeks before he travels. “At times, the absurdity makes one laugh. Other times, the only possible response is a stunned silence.” That surreal Kafkaesque bureaucracy will only get worse when he lands in Nigeria itself.

Like a Baudelairean flâneur or some holier-than-thou tourist, the narrator wanders his old city (the National Museum, the Musical Society) and marvels at its decay and corruption. “Lagos is proving a crushing disappointment.” In my favorite vignette, he visits an Internet café and finds himself sitting next to men composing 419 scamming letters (nicknamed after the section of Nigerian law they contravene), despite the fact that there is an explicit police warning posted on the wall. His ironic use of the explorer’s language of triumph is terrific: “I have stumbled onto the origin of the world-famous digital flotsam. I feel as though I have discovered the source of the Nile or the Niger.”

It’s not all harmless rascally behavior, though. A thief caught in the act at an outdoor market is doused in petrol and burned alive. The narrator’s detached perspective results in a surprising lack of outrage here – especially as compared to the other, lesser things that anger him. He even seems to give more time to the debacle of his aunt’s waylaid shipping container (everything is imported nowadays) than he does to the scandal of what Nigeria once exported: slaves.

Still, the language is often stunning – “Cockerels’ crows, from another direction, skitter over the muezzin’s Arabic.” Cole ably conveys the profusion and variety of life in Nigeria; “I suddenly feel a vague pity for all those writers who have to ply their trade from sleepy American suburbs, writing divorce scenes symbolized by the very slow washing of dishes. Had John Updike been African, he would have won the Nobel Prize twenty years ago.” Africa may be a place of contradictions, but it remains a fertile source of inspiration. I’m glad I read this, and Open City is reputed to be even better.

Related reads:
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
419 by Will Ferguson
Profile Image for Roger DeBlanck.
Author 6 books121 followers
November 5, 2021
With Every Day is for the Thief now released as a first edition in the US and UK from its previous 2007 publication in Africa, Cole has established himself as a leading voice in contemporary literature. In the same fashion as Open City, his debut novel, Every Day is for the Thief is gorgeously written and full of brilliant, alarming observations and profound ideas. But what draws me to Cole’s work, above all else, is the compassion he generates and the humanity he captures. Anecdotal in its construction, this work of fiction concerns a young man’s return to Nigeria after fifteen years away. In any number of unforgettable scenes, the man (who remains an unnamed narrator) meditates on the condition of society in his native country. The smaller storylines within the overall travelogue of the book are intricately connected by themes about corruption and thievery. What the narrator encounters is oftentimes deplorable and sad—for example, facing constant incidents of bribery among law enforcement and among government officials on the take. At other times, however, he relays his keen sense of optimism in what he sees, whether it is a girl reading a Michael Ondaatje book on a crowded, noisy bus or students developing their talents at the Musical Society of Nigeria. Cole’s every detail is sure-handed and fascinating in its examination of the everyday struggles and challenges of advancement in his home country. This gem of a book mesmerizes with its piercing insights into the state of humanity in all its shortcomings and successes.
910 reviews256 followers
June 8, 2020
I've seen criticism that this wasn't "enough of a story" - it doesn't have a plot, or much characterisation, or even (perhaps) a point. And yes, I can see that those are very fair points but for me this made it that much more engaging, that much more readable.

As a reader, you are never quite sure at what point the fiction slips into fact, the story slips into elegant recounting of the narrator's own - no, author's own - life.

(post-reading reminder to myself to find Cole's most recent collection of essays before his appearance at the Auckland Writer's Festival...)
Profile Image for Andre.
522 reviews141 followers
September 12, 2014
The title comes form a Yoruba proverb, Every day is for the thief, but one day is for the owner. I can't think of a more apt title for this book. Although billed as a novel it reads more like a memoir. And I suspect that a lot of the contents are akin to the author's actual life. The book is narrated in first person as the unnamed protagonist takes us on his journey back home to Nigeria after being away, mostly in NYC for the last 15 years. I like his writing, and you will feel like a friend traveling right along Teju Cole as he makes his observations about Nigeria.

The corruption that is inherently a part of Nigerian life, is frequently commented upon. He states that Lagos has become a city of patronage. The corruption clearly runs to the highest level of government and everyone who is in position to take advantage of the citizenry, often do and those actions just continually grease the wheels of the underground economy. Although this is accepted as part of every day life it still pains our storyteller, that this underground economy has not been curtailed. "But now, when you step out into the city, your oppressor is likely to be your fellow citizen, his ethics eroded by years of suffering and life at the cusp of desperation."

The sights and sounds of Lagos and surrounding areas are explored in vivid detail as our narrator visits with friends and family that he hasn't seen in the last 15 years. There is one great line that I highlighted, because I often feel the same way living in Houston (sorry Houstonians), he spots a girl reading a book on the bus and he notes, "...actual literary habits are inculcated in very few of the so-called literate." The great line is "it is a hostile environment for the life of the mind." Incredible.

This is a short book, at 162 pages it can easily be consumed in one sitting, and I think readers will enjoy this trip to Lagos without ever leaving their chair.
Profile Image for Will.
188 reviews148 followers
March 14, 2018
Absurdity, irrationality, and inconsistency reign in Nigerian-American Teju Cole’s 2007 novel Every Day is For the Thief. The reader follows a young Nigerian man who had emigrated to the United States, sick of the lack of opportunities and the chaos that plague his hometown of Lagos. He comes back for the first time to visit family and analyzes how the city has (and has not) changed in past fifteen years. In a direct writing style, Cole explores insecurity, religious escapism, corruption, and brain drain: phenomena familiar to every residents of cities across the developing world. He analyzes a confused, shifting, and divided city full of competing narratives through the lens of his own uncertainty and liminality. Cole’s novel is a look at Lagos as a grand farce, a field of struggle where each person tells herself stories in order to live.

Every Day is for the Thief is a personal story and a subjective narrative. The protagonist is a cipher for Cole himself. The narrator’s memory is irreversibly conditioned by his years spent in the U.S. and his status as a young male emigrant. When he encounters reminders of his childhood in Lagos, such as his experience riding the chaotic and packed danfo minibuses and weathering the ubiquitous blackouts, he can scarcely believe that this was once his daily life. This tension and confusion of the narration and the blurred photographs interspersed throughout reflect Cole’s uncertain and liminal identity in his own home country. The narrator, in a unique combined position of emigrant and returned prodigal son, can see Lagos from both an insider’s and an outsider’s perspective.

When riding a danfo, the narrator encounters a young woman reading a work of literary fiction. He desperately wants to talk with her, to make a connection, however tenuous, but she reaches her stop before the narrator can approach her. This scene recognizes that in a sprawling megacity like Lagos, the sense of rootlessness and anonymity can be overwhelming. Cole also explores social atomization through a short aside on the ubiquitous, corrupt pentecostal preachers promising money, love, and power. (51-52)

Humans search for belonging, and deep religious beliefs can create a shared group identity, even if the members know that the leaders are embezzling church funds. The case of the “area boys” also shows how desperation and isolation can lead to violence and irrationality. Lacking jobs, family connections, and education, the only way that these young men can survive is by demanding ransoms and stealing goods. Area boys are often migrants, but unlike the narrator and his story of upward mobility, their move has further impoverished them. They justify their anger and hunger with violent visions of revenge.

While the novel’s disorganization and meandering style can be frustrating, it reflects the experience of living in Lagos. For Cole, Lagos is a a “city of Scheherazades,” a land where the best storytellers, the best narrative shapers are the most spectacularly rewarded. (27) Cole’s voice is just one of millions of possible voices, all competing to scream above the sound of the humming generators. Cole waxes lyrical on the promise of a performing arts school and the sadness of the Nigerian National Museum and complains that the battles over history that Western readers are so tired of seeing in the news every day are never fought in Nigeria, a country with no “public consciousness” of history. (79) At the same time though, there are endless public debates over the present, over what is true, and over the future of the country.

Lagos is a city of Sherherzades because its storytellers are trying to survive blackouts, muggings, poor governance, and corruption. Like Sheherazade, they must construct a coherent narrative that justifies their survival for one more day, whether that be zealous belief in God or dreams of an escape plan to the U.S. or Europe. Most Lagosians do not have the time to wrestle over the meaning of history; they are too busy arguing with themselves and others over the present. Joan Didion’s famous adage is the ethos of Cole’s Lagos: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Cole’s narrator and the reader are constantly reconciling the narratives that he sees as irrational and inconsistent with the reality of Lagos.

Cole identifies several pathologies that have have plagued Lagos because of this constant battle of narrations. Trust is rare and saving face is everything. When a man attempts to mug the narrator’s uncle, he responds to empty threats with more empty threats. Instead of appealing to his reason or running away, the uncle refuses to lose face and confronts his attacker, claiming that he is a powerful man who can ruin the mugger’s life. Lies pile on top of lies, and the uncle still does not understand exactly what transpired. Escalation does not always end well, though, in Cole’s Lagos.

Senseless violence is everywhere. A young thief was caught and burned alive by a mob of angry passersby. The fear of thieves and lack of trust both in each other and in the authorities to handle petty theft overwhelmed all rationality. The narrator also witnesses two men beat each other after getting into a car accident. The passionless ritual violence seems fitting for a society where trust is dead and where men and women tell themselves that reputation is everything.

Cole’s Lagos is a city of social, economic, and psychological stress. Lagos is a closed city deeply stratified by social class. The rich and aspirational section themselves off from the masses in stuffy closed rooms behind tall walls topped with broken glass. To maintain their distance and perceived superiority, families like the narrator’s tell themselves stories of senseless violence and slums to justify their seclusion. They tell themselves that they need insulation from the outside so that they can succeed. But these walls and security apparatuses, physical signs of fear, signal violence and attract trouble, just as the Chekhov's gun rusting on his family’s wall sets the narrator on edge. Stressful isolation also encourages aspirational young people, like the narrator’s childhood friend who is training to be a doctor, to leave Nigeria. If the understanding of your country or city that your family and friends constantly reinforce is one of danger, seclusion, and separation, who would want to stay? The constant thrumming of generators during the night and lack of peace and quiet further encourages ambitious young people, like the narrator and his friend, to dream of a mythical Western world.

Cole’s Lagos is a grand farce, a place where idea l’a need, or “all we need is the general idea or concept.” (137) To fill the gaps, Lagosians tell themselves stories to create wildly different understandings of their common world. In Every Day is for the Thief Teju Cole explores the liminality of Lagos, constantly crossing new thresholds. But at the same time, he critiques the isolation, religious dogmatism, and irrationality that come with that dynamism. Cole calls for cold, hard facts, too. The narrator’s subjectivity could be just another voice in the cacophony, but his dedication to clear analysis without losing the murkiness of contemporary Lagos can help all students and residents of burgeoning megacities begin to understand them in all their complexity.
Profile Image for JenniferD.
1,006 reviews359 followers
February 11, 2015
3.5-stars, really.

so apparently this book is the result of teju cole's visit to lagos back in 2005/2006. it was his first time back in 13 years. cole wrote 30 blog posts in 30 days - documenting his experiences in a way that seems more personal and biographic than fiction. while this exercise was going on, cole wrote Open City. it was published to great acclaim. Every Day Is for the Thief finally made it into north american readers' hands in 2014. (it was published in nigeria in 2007.)

in the new york times' 'by the book' feature, cole said that the novel is "overrated" and he is most interested in writers who "find ways to escape it." so in trying to understand every day is for the thief, i kept coming back to this idea and, perhaps, this book is cole's experiment in escaping, or challenging, the fictional form? (as is, i believe, the wonderful way he uses twitter. - currently, sadly, on hiatus.)

even though i knew every day is for the thief was presented as a novel, i kept having to remind myself of this fact. i really did feel like i was reading a memoir from cole, a deeply personal story peppered with sociological and existential questions, examinations, and crises. cole includes some gorgeous black and white photos in this book - a something i quite loved, but which also (for me) helped blur the lines between nonfiction and fiction. in lagos, corruption is rampant. historical preservation seems to be nonexistent. threats and violence are all part of a regular day in the city. the narrator is trying to understand the whys and the hows, while pondering whether he could actually return to live in a city that has not been home for many years, and a city which inspires so much rage in the narrator. there is such feeling of hopelessness and despondency, but the narrator is searching for what he describes, using an image from Tomas Tranströmer, as a "spot of sun that moves over the house walls and slips over the unaware forest of flickering faces … " this idea, that there is still beauty and hope to be found and, perhaps, all is not lost for lagos.

one moment in the book really stood out for me, and seems to be at the heart of the narrator's/author's quest to understand:

"Nigeria's disconnection from reality is neatly exemplified in three claims to fame the country has recently received in the world media. Nigeria was declared the most religious country in the world, Nigerians were found to be the world's happiest people, and in Transparency International's 2005 assessment, Nigeria was tied for third from the bottom out of the 159 countries assessed in the corruption perceptions index."
Profile Image for Jeff Scott.
688 reviews60 followers
November 24, 2014
An alternative title for this book could be, “Do You Have Anything for Me?”, as our unnamed narrator goes back to his native Nigeria and discovers how much it has changed since he has been gone. The rampant corruption and bribery are at every turn. Instead of taxes people show up and obstruct progress by asking, “Do you have anything for me?” asking for a bribe. It’s how anything gets done. At one point the narrator jests that even anti-corruption billboard was established through bribery. It’s disheartening to return to a place that is home and finding it isn't your home anymore. Deep down, it’s not because the place has changed, it’s because you have changed.

The semi-autobiographical work is part memoir and part philosophy. At its core is how tenacious the feeling of home becomes. He sees corruption and poverty and wonders how anything gets done. He also finds that the cultural attractions that he prefers are for the wealthy, not for the native Nigerians. He realizes that by having these tastes and desires, he separates himself from his sense of home. He longs for a past that is no longer there, but maybe never was there. It’s this conflict that drives this short work.

It’s a lyrical novel that is easily relatable. How many people strain under life where they want to break away, break free? Once free, they can never return to that place and must forge a new sense of home. Teju Cole’s struggle takes on much larger dimensions, but the core is still the same. He takes something that be very foreign and makes it intimately relatable.

Favorite passages:
I have taken into myself some of the assumptions of life in a Western democracy—certain ideas about legality, for instance, certain expectations of due process—an in that sense I have returned a stranger. P. 18
The problem used to be the leadership. But now, when you step out into the city, your oppressor is likely to be your fellow citizen, his ethics eroded by years of suffering and life at the cusp of desperation. There is venality in abundance here, and the general air of surrender, of helplessness, is the most heartbreaking thing about it. I decide that I love my own tranquility too much to muck about in other people’s troubles. I am not going to move back to Lagos. No way. I don’t care if there are a million untold stories, I don’t care if that, too, is a contribution to the atmosphere of surrender. P. 54

It is important for a people to have something that is theirs, something to be proud of, and for such institutions to have a host of supporters. And it is vital, at the same time, to have a meaningful forum for interacting with the world. So that Moliere’s work can appear onstage in Lagos, as Soyinka’s appears in London. So that what people in one part of the world think of as uniquely theirs takes its rightful place as part of universal culture. P. 66

This is what it is to be a stranger: when you leave, there is no void. P. 88

The word “home” sits in my mouth like a foreign food. So simple a word, and so hard to pin its meaning. P. 115

Profile Image for Darkowaa.
166 reviews369 followers
July 28, 2014
Every Day is For The Thief is a good book. The protagonist of this novella or travelogue is a Nigerian born, now naturalized American resident medical officer in New York with a calm demeanor, giving the book a progressive, logical flow. I actually read the book thinking the protagonist was Teju Cole himself… just because readers don’t get much detail on the protagonist- like his name, stature etc.

A lot of what Cole writes about seems common to Ghana but not as severe! The corruption heavily practiced by the police, the hustle and bustle of the city full of old vehicles and zooming okadas (motorcycles) on pot-holed roads, the regular power outages, the wide social and economic disparities in the nation of Nigeria and increased armed robbery cases in the suffering economy are all prevalent in Ghana as well.

Certain parts of the book wowed me. The widespread of internet frauds conducted in Internet cafes by ‘Yahoo Yahoo’ boys, the burning of a child thief in a car tire, the gangs that roam the streets of Lagos readily demanding thousands of naira or ever-ready to maim citizens was pretty wild. Such incidents may seem exaggerated and fictitious, but I believe these things actually occur in Lagos, since I’ve heard similar stories from some Nigerian friends. After reading this novella, foreigners may think twice before visiting Lagos because it seems as if Nigerians are always living on the edge of danger!

I loved how the protagonist was a ‘returnee’ from being away in the US for 15 years. He sort of returned to Lagos as a stranger with his absorbed Western ways of democracy. This allowed him to share his shock of the craziness and delight being back home with a wide array of readers- both foreign and fellow Africans. I think this helped foreign readers take in Lagos from an insider, yet outsiders’ lens.

This is a good book for anyone who would love to learn about the rambunctious nation of Nigeria. Teju Cole expertly discusses and simplifies some of the complex issues the country faces such as corruption, governmental issues, the oil sector, the health sector etc. Some may be even more apprehensive about visiting the nation after reading jaw-dropping descriptions, but I’m still keen on visiting Nigeria- Abuja to be precise!

Profile Image for Christian.
2 reviews17 followers
July 18, 2009
I have to keep reminding myself of the distance between fiction and non-fiction when going into this, but suffice to say, I enjoyed this book thoroughly.

I wasn't initially drawn in by the narrator's curt assessments of travel preparations, but ultimately it was the level of analysis given to Nigeria and the Nigerian psyche that I fell in love with. Cole's novel invites the reader to react to a Nigeria imagined and remembered (two sides of the same coin) as both a " forever foreigner" and a native. His analysis of the problems of Nigerian, and to a broader extent African governmental and social dilemmas, was continually striking. I have very often wondered how Africa can bring itself out of the multitude of troubles it has inherited, and worse, those it has brought upon itself and those in the diaspora looking back at it for some semblance of foundation. This book gave me a glimpse of what might be at the root of one country's struggles beyond colonialism; a dense and nearly suffocating legacy of social obligation propagated by deeply rooted ideas of what is means to be a productive part of a community. There are entire pages here that I underlined for discussion!

In terms of narrative and plot, Cole's writing seems studied, lucid and literate in refreshing ways: there are entire sections devoted to quests for literary sanctuaries, and ones on the atrocities of poorly managed artifacts. Maybe what I enjoyed most about this book is that it doesn't assume the reader to want a "tale" about Africa. This is a story about a man's struggle to make sense of his desire to be an African among Africans, despite corruption, dissolving family bonds, and the normal stress of paying the bills and making it in a competitive artistic industry. To say the novel is at it's best, eloquent and meditative, at it's most confusing, cyclical and abrupt, pulls from the narrator's thesis on Africans writing of Nigeria in Nigeria. That, for the richness of it's existence, history, contradictions and diversity, there is and will never be a shortage of art to pull from.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Shannon.
121 reviews101 followers
November 9, 2022
Loved it! I'm trying to recall why I didn't give it a 5. I've never been to Nigeria and I feel like the narrator of this book took me there. He is a conscious and well rounded individual who goes back to Lagos with a new perspective after having been away for over a decade.

I was able to attend Cole's author event on the day of the US book release. From the nods that were visible across the audience during the reading, I'm thinking this book is actually more nonfiction than not.
Profile Image for Michael Livingston.
795 reviews246 followers
August 25, 2020
A short, meandering, brilliant book as the unnamed narrator (Cole? Much like Open City this feels barely fictional) explores Lagos after many years away.
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