Official Synopsis from Goodreads: The compelling, inspiring, and comically sublime New York Times bestseller about one man’s coming-of-age, set during the twilight of apartheid and the tumultuous days of freedom that followed.
Trevor Noah’s unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents’ indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, steal him away. Finally liberated by the end of South Africa’s tyrannical white rule, Trevor and his mother set forth on a grand adventure, living openly and freely and embracing the opportunities won by a centuries-long struggle.
Born a Crime is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. It is also the story of that young man’s relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother—his teammate, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.
The eighteen personal essays collected here are by turns hilarious, dramatic, and deeply affecting. Whether subsisting on caterpillars for dinner during hard times, being thrown from a moving car during an attempted kidnapping, or just trying to survive the life-and-death pitfalls of dating in high school, Trevor illuminates his curious world with an incisive wit and unflinching honesty. His stories weave together to form a moving and searingly funny portrait of a boy making his way through a damaged world in a dangerous time, armed only with a keen sense of humor and a mother’s unconventional, unconditional love.
Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir
Setting: Johannesburg, South Africa. From the late 1980s to late 2000s.
My Copy Came From: I borrowed the hardback from my local library.
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Review: Fascinating, sad, and powerful. Born a Crime is Trevor Noah’s memoir about his life growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa. Trevor’s father is Swiss, and his mother is Xhosa. In Born a Crime we see a bit of apartheid, but most of the book takes place after apartheid has ended. I think this was the first book I’ve read that is set during and after apartheid in South Africa. I’ve read and loved Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, but that read is more of a buildup to apartheid, and Born a Crime takes place during and after apartheid. The horror and injustice of apartheid is felt throughout the book, especially as Trevor grows up and is forced to stay indoors.
The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate, is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.
Born a Crime is told in a non-linear fashion. Each chapter is a different essay, focusing on a different story or theme, and these essays are not in the book in any kind of chronological order. I didn’t so much have a problem with the non-linear aspect, but occasionally there were repetitive sections. Each essay could probably be read without reading the others, and you’d still get a good sense and story out of it, but because of this style sometimes Noah would repeat himself.
In terms of the different essays, I enjoyed the one titled “Robert”, which has Noah reconnecting with his father with some surprising results. Other standout essays are “The Mulberry Tree” which focused on bullying, and “Chameleon”, which talked about language and fitting in and being accepted.
I learned to use language like my mother did. I would simulcast—give you the program in your own tongue. I’d get suspicious looks from people just walking down the street. “Where are you from?” they’d ask. I’d reply in whatever language they’d addressed me in, using the same accent that they used. There would be a brief moment of confusion, and then the suspicious look would disappear. “Oh, okay. I thought you were a stranger. We’re good then.”
Trevor Noah has an easy way of writing. It feels conversational and is easy to follow. He’s a likeable guy, and most of all you can sense his love and care for his mother, Patricia, who is the star of the book. Patricia fights for Trevor and gives him a sense of self and teaches him about life and faith. She is one strong woman and she was a joy to read about. But be warned, there are some intense, emotional scenes that will tear your heart out.
I mention faith, as Patricia is a very religious person, and Trevor is definitely not. There was a lot of anti-religion, anti-Christianity talk, but there is also quite a bit of Patricia trying to point out how God has helped her in her life. I loved how the book ended! It was quite fitting as the argument over God and religion between Trevor and Patricia takes place over the entire book.
We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited. Growing up in Soweto, our dream was to put another room on our house. Maybe have a driveway. Maybe, someday, a cast-iron gate at the end of the driveway. Because that is all we knew. But the highest rung of what’s possible is far beyond the world you can see. My mother showed me what was possible. The thing that always amazed me about her life was that no one showed her. No one chose her. She did it on her own. She found her way through sheer force of will.
There were some things that I struggled with in this book. Even though I’ve heard of Trevor Noah, and recognize his picture, I’ve never seen any of his shows or watched any clips of his. So, I went into this book not knowing anything about him and his personality, and so not knowing about him had me struggling in understanding his tone and meaning in certain passages. Many times I wasn’t sure if he was trying to be funny and I just wasn’t getting the joke, or if he was being serious. But again, I’m not familiar with him so that was probably just me.
I also had trouble with his justification of his bad behaviours (lying, stealing, etc). He engaged in selling illegal CDs, and sometimes he’d acknowledge this, and other times he’d try to justify his actions. I found this confusing, and I didn’t understand what his point was. Again, I think this may have been a problem with me not really knowing anything about him going in, and not being able to discern his tone. I also wonder if perhaps I would’ve gotten his meaning a bit more had I listened to this as an audiobook instead of reading the hardback from the library.
This was a book club read for me, and I recommend this book as a book club selection. There is a lot to discuss here, from apartheid and poverty, to the characters and their stories, to the Johannesburg setting, to wondering what happened to various people. All in all it was a great read and despite my issues with a couple things, I did really enjoy it!
Bottom Line: Strong and powerful.