Thursday, January 26, 2017

Review: Born a Crime

Born a Crime
By Trevor Noah
Published: November 15, 2016

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 stories 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.

My review:

I picked up this book on a whim when I saw it at a library over the holidays. I knew it had been on the "best books of the year" lists and I had ordered a copy for my library but I didn't pay much attention to it. I didn't even know who Trevor Noah was. I'd just heard the book was good so I thought "why not?". 

Born a Crime is a series of essays about Trevor Noah's childhood and youth growing up in South Africa during Apartheid and afterwards. Trevor is (as the rest of the world except me probably knew) the host of The Daily Show so while the stories cover some heavy and sad topics like racism, poverty and domestic abuse, the essays are also infused with humor. I laughed out loud several times while reading this book and also felt sorry for his mom because he was such a rascal as a kid! 

Born a Crime focuses on Trevor's youth from his early childhood to his teens. Trevor tells a lot of funny stories about his behavior as a kid and young teen but through it all, it is clear how much he loves and respects his mom. She is smart, caring, loving and deeply religious. She was also a fast runner (and so was Trevor when he got into trouble, which happened a lot). I enjoyed the stories of Trevor's misbehavior and awkward teen years and also the sweet relationship he had with his mom.

While this book is entertaining it also looks at some important topics. Trevor talks about the history of racism in South Africa and how ridiculous the whole concept of Apartheid was. Even the differences between the various groups of nonwhites and how the white South Africans set people against each other to keep the system of Apartheid working. Growing up, Trevor had to be hidden by his mom during Apartheid because his existence was illegal as a biracial child. He also talks about not quite fitting in with the blacks (whom he chose to identify with), the "coloured people" (people with multiracial ancestry as well as those that the white South Africans decided were "coloured" based on random criteria) or the whites. Trevor used his gift of languages to find common ground with his classmates. It helped them realize he is the same as them. Sharing a language brought unity and shows that people are not so different which is why the government did its best to keep everyone segregated.

Apartheid ended in the 90s while I was in high school but I didn't really know much about it. I don't think it was something we learned about aside from news coverage on Channel One. Of course we were teens with our own self centered concerns. Reading this book helped me understand more about Apartheid and what life was like under Apartheid. 

I was able to listen to the audio version of this book as well as reading the print version. Trevor narrates the audiobook which is fantastic. He does a great job with the various voices and accents, especially the Afrikaners (white South Africans of Dutch descent). We had several Afrikaner library patrons at my old library and Trevor's accent was spot on (unlike Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond).  I recommend listening to the audio version if you can. Trevor is a great storyteller. Audible is currently offering the digital audiobook for free to members of Goodreads. Find out more here.

I hope you will consider giving Born a Crime a try. It is funny, educational and inspiring and likely to be one of my favorites.


  1. I don't remind many celebrity memoirs but I like how this provides insight to his childhood/teens while also commenting on the socio-political aspect of South Africa. I don't know much about the apartheid nor was taught much in school either.

  2. Thanks for putting this on my radar. I am trying out some audio books that I can listen to when I workout, clean, ride in the car, etc, so this one seems like a good place to start and such an important read! Great review!

  3. Sounds good. Apartheid and a memoir on this period should be interesting reading.

  4. Love Trevor Noah! I'm so glad to hear his book was good-- I may have to check out the audio book rather than the physical copy. It adds something when the author themselves are reading it :)

  5. I've never read about the Apartheid- and I'm not one for analogies or memoirs. But this one really sounds good!

  6. I haven't watched The Daily Show much since John left, but I like Trevor a lot. This sounds really fascinating. I don't know much about the Apartheid time period. It would be nice to learn more from Trevor's perspective. I'm sad I missed the audiobook promotion. Great review! You definitely made me want to read it.


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