Book review: Born a Crime

 In Book Reviews

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah, published November 15 2016: Spiegel & Grau/Random House

It is hard not to imagine a marketing machine working hard in the background behind the seismic rise of South Africa’s favourite comic son to the global Daily Show stage. And marketing machine there undoubtedly is (I researched it: the big names are there – they presumably know a good thing when they see it). But I desperately wanted this to be a ‘memoir à clef’: my term for a memoir about real people written by a real person, as opposed to a ghastly premature ghost-written schlebfest (no names will be mentioned but you know who they are…). After all, Trevor Noah is only 33. Was there a story to be told? There was.

Trevor Noah is a funny man and this book is an accessible and rumbustious read because of it. But there is much hardship and, unsurprisingly, some outright violence as well. Born in 1984 into the dying days of apartheid, his genesis and rise against considerable odds is essentially down to one person, his remarkable mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah.

The descriptions of her religious devotion as seen through his early childhood eyes are both hilarious and telling; but the key elements are her clear-eyed determination to give Trevor every chance to succeed (he deliberately has no Xhosa name to mark his path) and her very own wicked sense of humour. Clearly Noah has inherited both traits in abundance.

The book is a largely chronological recounting of his itinerant and, one suspects, idiosyncratic childhood. Presumably its intention is to paint a more rounded picture of Trevor Noah the man to his increasing number of fans around the world. In this context, Born a Crime is not just a slick title – his parents broke albeit twisted laws to both bring him into the world and bring him up. And that results in many bitter-sweet stories, simply, engagingly and wittily told.

What’s interesting about the book is that, at one level, it gives you greater insight into where the man comes from and what has formed him; but at another level, it leaves you wondering about how this tear-away child from the heart of Soweto-Jozi makes sense of himself now today, creating and hosting the Daily Show in New York City. It feels as though there is a side of Noah that we have not seen – one that perhaps would render him vulnerable in a way that he has chosen not, as yet, to share.

Nevertheless, it is significant in its portrayal of how a child of Soweto can end up hosting a global current affairs show; but it is also important in its portrayal of the way the multi-lingual, multi-ethnic Noah skilfully navigates the various cultural and linguistic tripwires that criss-cross the South African and global landscape. It is no wonder he cultivated humour as an essential tool for his survival. Survive – and thrive – on it he most definitely has.

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