Review: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Noah was born a crime, the son of 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 first 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, take him away. Finally liberated by the end of South Africa’s 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.
A collection of eighteen personal essays, Born a Crime tells 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. Born a Crime is equally the story of that young man’s fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother—a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that ultimately threatens her own life.


What is Born a Crime about?

Born a Crime is a collection of personal essays by comedian Trevor Noah, recounting his childhood in South Africa. Noah opens up about the fact that at the time he was born, his parents’ relationship was illegal and his existence perilous. After the fall of a Apartheid, Noah continued to struggle to find a place in his world that accepted who he was and what he looked like. These essays cover topics from privilege, to domestic violence, to language barriers, to trying to fit in at different schools.

Genre: Memoir

Though presented as separate essays in each chapter, the chapters seamlessly blend together into a single recollection of Noah’s childhood. The chronology jumps on occasion, but the flow of the narrative still makes sense in the order it’s presented.

The Good

Trevor Noah is a compelling writer. His words jump off the page, and his voices carries so well from essay to essay. And either Noah himself, or a skilled editor, is a master of dramatic irony. At multiple stages throughout the essays a key piece of information is dropped, left alone, and then picked back up later. Key among these is the fate of Noah’s mother, and the way her story is shaped, which is hinted at constantly but kept for the very end of the book. Noah really does ask the readers to care about each and every person he cares about, and succeeds. The book may be funny in its wit and writing style, but it covers an incredibly serious time in South Africa’s history–and even its present.

The Okay

I would say the only thing I didn’t really enjoy is something I often find myself not enjoying about collections of essays, and it comes down to the choices in editing. There were figures that were introduced multiple times, sometimes with not enough or too much information, because they were reintroduced any time they became relevant to the essay at hand. This means that in one chapter you’ll read a name and have no idea who they are, but gather from context their role in the story. Then, three chapters later when you no longer really need that information, you finally get introduced to that person.

The Bad

Honestly, I neither have anything bad to say nor do I like putting something in this section after reading a memoir.

Final Thoughts

This book is thoughtful, humorous, compelling, and so easy to devour. Each chapter/essay is incredibly well written, self contained, and also serves the overall narrative Trevor Noah is putting out there. You follow his childhood and young adulthood, but you also follow his mother and his friends through their journeys. So much of this book was a surprise, and the real star of the show is Noah’s mother. The book also reads as somewhat of a love letter to the South Africa of Noah’s childhood, and the many places and people he spent time with.

By Catherine

I'm a lover of books, coffee, wine, and bees. Happy to join the ranks of book bloggers everywhere!

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