REVIEW | Open City by Teju Cole

Open City by Teju Cole

image via Goodreads

title: Open City [support an independent bookseller and purchase at Strand]
author: Teju Cole
genre: literary fiction
pages: 241
source: I received an advanced reader’s copy via Netgalley
in exchange for an honest review.

“We experience life as a continuity, and only after it falls away, after it becomes the past, do we see its discontinuities. The past, if there is such a thing, is mostly empty space, great expanses of nothing, in which significant persons and events float.” (p. 144)

The past (if there is such a thing) heavily influences the present day of Teju Cole’s novel Open City. The novel follows Julius, Nigerian-born psychiatry resident as he walks around New York City’s many neighborhoods during his off hours and ponders each area’s unique history. And that’s pretty much the most action you get over the course of the novel: Julius takes a lot of long walks. He thinks about New York, his job, his few friends and his family. He goes on holiday to Brussels, does more thinking, relays the experiences of the people he meets, and talks more about history. Not much happens. So if you NEED plot-driven, fast-paced narrative, this is not the book for you.

I, however, do not. Cole didn’t need a lot to happen to create a thought-provoking, quietly beautiful portrait of one man.

I loved the way that Cole gently held our hand as he slowly developed the character of Julius over the course of the book. Julius, being a psychiatrist, was brilliantly and fittingly rendered as someone who looks at the world in a detached, almost clinical way, observing more than participating at times. There are several lovely scenes were we learn a lot about Julius through watching him interact with strangers as he gathers their stories and experiences (as psychiatrists are so adept at doing in and out of their office). One part of the narrative where I think Cole’s talent in character development especially shone: there’s a chilling scene late in the book between Julius and the sister of a childhood friend named Moji (which I won’t reveal here as to not spoil and/or influence your reading experience, but it starts on 223 in Part Two, Chapter 20, and ends on page 227) where she reveals something so personal and difficult to him, and his reaction to her revelation (to reference a specific story about Nietzsche) says an incredible amount about the inner workings of Julius’ mind. So much of the book was about “definition”: how our past defines our present, how an area or a people are defined by collective experiences, how others define us, and how we define others and ourselves.

“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.” (p. 178)

Rubric rating: 8. This is one of those works that I feel like I’ll come back to again and again, and each time, see something different and get a bit more out of it.

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