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OPEN CITY by Teju Cole Kirkus Star


by Teju Cole

Pub Date: Feb. 8th, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6809-8
Publisher: Random House

A masterful command of narrative voice distinguishes a debut novel that requires patience and rewards it. 

Like the novelist, protagonist Julius is a Nigerian immigrant living in Manhattan. He works as a psychiatric resident, though there are long stretches of the story in which his profession barely factors. He has a former girlfriend, some medical colleagues, even a few friends, but none emerge as fully fleshed characters in a novel that consists mostly of Julius’s restless wanderings throughout the city, where he withstands the crush of a very diverse populace while remaining very much alone. If Julius is the only character the reader really gets to know, even he seems disembodied, a stranger to himself. (“And this double of mine had, at that precise moment, begun to tussle with the same problem as its equally confused original. To be alive, it seemed to me, as I stood there in all kinds of sorrow, was to be both original and reflection, and to be dead was to be split off, to be reflection alone.”) As Julius traverses boundaries of neighborhood, country, chronology and race, the reader begins to wonder about the perspective of a protagonist who seems so disaffected. Rather than establishing momentum, the circular, elliptical narrative focuses on the everyday, though in Manhattan this encompasses muggings, car crashes and passing encounters with various strangers. A climactic revelation toward the end casts fresh light on all that has preceded: “Each person must, on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy, must assume that the room of his own mind is not, cannot be, entirely opaque to him,” reflects Julius. “Perhaps this is what we mean by sanity: that, whatever our self-admitted eccentricities might be, we are not the villains of our own stories.”

Determining whether the novel's main character is hero, villain or somewhere in between might require the reader to start over with the book after finishing it.