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Magwood on Books

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Reviewed: Open City by Teju Cole, Faber and Faber

Open CityIt takes a while to be drawn into this quiet, meditative book, an extended diary of a man’s wanderings across New York. The narrator is Julius, a young Nigerian psychiatrist, who roams the city after hours, lonely and alone, ruminating on his past and the characters he meets. He is a deeply cultured man, making reference to art and literature and the classical music he loves, and so startles us with other details of his life: time spent in a Nigerian military school; his estrangement from his German mother.

In his meanderings Julius meets other emigrants, the Haitian shoeshine man, an illegal Liberian refugee beached in a detention centre in Queens. At one stage he takes off for Brussels in the vague hope of finding his beloved grandmother there. He has sex with a stranger he meets in a gallery, spends hours drinking and debating Islam with a Moroccan student who runs the Internet cafe, always reflexively noting his thoughts and responses. He reminds me of Yeats’s “long-legged fly” floating on the surface of experience.

Back in New York he resumes his wanderings. Gradually we come to realise that Julius is not walking towards something – a sort of spiritual fulfillment – but away from something – true self knowledge tamped down by an incident in his youth, a shocking revelation that makes the reader rethink him entirely. If it’s plot and a clear message you’re looking for, you’ll be disappointed in Open City, but if your taste runs to literary fiction and original, subtle writing you will be impressed. The book has won several awards already, including the PEN and the Hemingway.

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