“Every Day is for The Thief” Book Review

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In Every Day is for The Thief, a novella by Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole, an unnamed narrator shares his experiences traveling through Lagos for several days. The narrator is critical of everything. From the corruption at the immigration office to witnessing an eleven-year-old boy being burned alive at a market for stealing, Cole’s bleak tone of every aspect of Lagos’s cultural, political, and social offerings never wavers. In response to the burning of the young man, the narrator shares, “A thief is a thief; his master will find another boy, another one without a name. The market has seen everything. It must eat. It does not break its habits” (p 51). The burning is representative of the punishment local thieves face for their actions. However, the markets and the systems of power create the need and desire to steal, get ahead, live well, do better, and continue thriving. The market continues to feast despite the circumstances. Its parasitic nature is habitual and undisturbed. While there are many thieves throughout Lagos, this city in Nigeria has a larger socioeconomic ecosystem that steals Nigerian talent, resources, land, labor, and intellectual property every day. There exists a hierarchy of theft, and the young man burned alive is at the bottom of the pyramid. The 419 scammers are a step above the immigration officials in Lagos, a step above them, the Nigerian government, one step above international corporations like Shell, a step above the government, and so on. However, those who face punishment for their crimes are often the minor criminals at the bottom. They are burned and punished for the whole town to witness. Their theft is demonized and provides a cautionary tale for locals. Every day is for the thief, except those who are minor criminals. These thieves are not tolerated by society. 

While the narrator provided plenty of bitterness, he offered no sweetness. The narrator has no fond memories of Lagos. His critique of Nigeria’s cultural and social entities is relentless. While some critiques are valid, for example, the narrator’s musings regarding airline safety, his critical observations turn into complaining after a while. I hoped to see the beauty, art, or poetry found in Lagos; an insiders look from someone who grew up in the area. Instead, the narrator finds the city lacking in every aspect, and I wondered why he returned. Besides the thieves who run rampant across the city, what does Lagos have to offer anyone else? Not much, according to the unnamed fictional narrator in this novella.

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