Friday, January 20, 2017
Review: BORN A CRIME, by Trevor Noah
I'm a fan of Trevor Noah, host of "The Daily Show," but I would have read this book in any case. Born A Crime is a memoir of his childhood in South Africa and a very particular story it is. His mother is African and Xhosa, and his father is European and Swiss; he was raised by his mother and later a stepfather and has straddled three worlds racially and culturally- the black South African world, the white one, and the "colored" one, which is the world of mixed-race people. And he was "born a crime" because sexual relations between races was illegal and his mother did in fact go to jail for a time.
Overall the book is a delight. You can hear Noah's voice as you read and that voice is frank, intelligent and no-nonsense. He's also very funny and tells stories both dark and humorous with a light touch. I really enjoyed it cover to cover.
So that said, Born A Crime can be choppy and somewhat difficult to follow in terms of a clear timeline but what is very clear is his sense of joy, confusion, his struggle to find a place for himself, and above all his love for his mother Patricia, an independent and nonconformist woman who taught Noah that anything is possible. But you do have to read between the lines to get a full sense of what it was like to grow up Trevor Noah; we only learn about his stepfather towards the end of the book but the experience of living with a man who was constantly trying to push him out and dominate the family must have colored his entire childhood. He doesn't tell us that, but if you look for it I bet you can find it.
He recounts stories from school, from outside of school with his friends and "entrepreneurial associates" (my term) one might say- the people with whom he established quasi-criminal off-the-books businesses pirating music and doing DJ gigs. He tells us about the time he was arrested and the truly terrifying prospects of landing in a South African prison. He tells us about his relationship with his father, a distant but loving man who accepted Noah without question but played his cards close to the vest. To this day Noah says he hasn't been to Switzerland or met his Swiss extended family, although I wonder with the publication of this book if that's still the case.
The best parts of the book, both the easiest and the most difficult to read, are those about his relationship with Patricia, who brought him up hard and awash in love and support. He couldn't, and didn't, get away with anything, even when he thought he did. Finally we meet his abusive stepfather Abel, who alternately charmed and terrorized the two of them as well as Noah's young half-brother. This abuse climaxes when Abel shoots Patricia in the head; she survives, but something died that day, even if it wasn't she herself.
Like I said I would have read Born A Crime whether or not I was a fan of Noah's, just to read a first-hand memoir of growing up in South Africa at the tail end of apartheid and the beginning of the democratic era. There's a lot of information here; I learned a lot but like other books I've read about South Africa I'm left with plenty more questions and the realization that there is still so much I don't know. So that makes Born A Crime a terrific read on several levels. It's funny and entertaining; it's heartbreaking; it's educative, and it leaves you wanting more.
FTC Disclosure: I received a galley copy from the bookstore where I work.