Book Review: Born a Crime

Given that it’s only March, it feels a little early to already be calling my favourite read of the year. But I really, really want to.

Comedian Trevor Noah’s autobiography Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood is fantastic. 6/5 stars. It’s not just the best book I’ve read this year, but one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s the kind of book you tell everyone to read, even your coworkers who aren’t readers, because everyone should, could, and would enjoy it.

Michael is the reason I read it. He actually listened to Born a Crime on audiobook late last year, and it’s basically all he talked about for a while—not so much that it was entirely spoiled for me, but just enough to make me feel like I needed to read it sometime soon. Then my dad got us tickets to Trevor Noah's standup show for March 9, and then soon became really soon, so I buckled down and cracked open my copy.

The synopsis, from Penguin House:

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. [...] 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.



Born a Crime is a difficult book to explain beyond its synopsis. I feel like I shouldn’t say much about it, because the book is worth reading without having any preconceived thoughts about it. I also feel like I shouldn’t say too much about why I loved it, because, again: read it and experience it for yourself!

But it wouldn’t be much of a book review if all I did was scream READ THIS BOOK, so I’ll try to do a bit better.

Born a Crime is immersive, insightful, eye-opening, and hilarious. Noah handles issues, whether they're as macro as institutionalized racism or as micro as high school popularity, with intelligence and a sense of humour. He's an excellent storyteller even when he's not cracking jokes.

Each chapter of Born a Crime is framed within the context of South Africa’s history before delving into a story from Noah’s childhood. But history isn’t just a framing device, and throughout the book you learn as much about the little, everyday details of colonized South Africa as you do his life.

That being said, Noah's life is interesting as hell. I get that everyone is unique and everyone has their own story to tell, but I’m not entirely convinced that there are very many people whose lives have been quite as unique as Noah’s, nor could they tell their story quite as well.


Despite the heavy subject matter, Born a Crime isn’t a gloomy read. It goes over the many things that were wrong with apartheid, the hardships Noah and his mother endured, but it doesn’t leave you feeling bleak and depressed, which I think is in part a testament to Noah’s personality and the influence if his mother. Also, Noah is a comedian; every story is told in a way that makes you smile and laugh.

As you might expect, Born a Crime is hilarious—like, side-splittingly funny—and emotive. It’ll have you bursting with laughter and then it'll sober you up—just to get you laughing again. It was a joy to read and I still can't get over how good it was and how much I loved it.

So, you know, if you haven’t already… read it.




PS: I said “read it,” but listening to it on audiobook might even be a better choice. I think it adds a lot of depth that you won’t get in the book (though the book is fine on its own if you’re averse to audiobooks). For example: if you’re not familiar with South Africa and its many languages, Noah’s narration lets you know what they sound like. When I read the word Xhosa (his mother’s people and language), I imagined it was pronounced zho-sa. I was very, very wrong! Haha.

PPS: This is a book review so I wasn’t going to touch on it, but seeing Trevor Noah live was so much fun!! Michael and I have already decided to buy tickets once he announces another show in Vancouver.

PPPS: Yes, all these photos are from different shoots! Sometimes life is just like that.

PPPPS: Getting a little ridiculous with the post scripts now, but I just found out Born a Crime is going to become a movie! Not sure how I feel about it yet. Sometimes you just love a book so much you get worried about the movie adaptation, y'know?