Back in 2009, Trevor Noah’s mother was shot in the face. Her ex-husband was the one who pulled the trigger. The bullet entered the back of her skull and came out the front, but, somehow, it managed to miss all the important parts, like her brain and spinal cord. The doctors determined she didn’t even need surgery. They stitched her up and seven days later, she was back at work.
For a lot of people, that incident alone could be enough to sustain a book. But in the Daily Show host’s stirring memoir Born a Crime, it’s just one of the many absurd chapters in his family’s unlikely and engrossing story.
It starts right with the title: The very existence of Noah—a half-black, half-white child born in apartheid-era South Africa—was against the law. That identity crisis serves as the foundation for the entire book, from his days as a confused grade student to his awkward teen years to his rebellious young adulthood. He fits in nowhere; even his black grandfather half-jokingly calls him “massa.” But Noah’s not the main character in his own story—his mother is the constant. Foe of the status quo, her presence looms large over every page whether she’s mentioned or not, and by the end, Noah lovingly makes clear that this book belongs to her.
In other words, this isn’t one of those comedian-penned essay collections where the yuks jump out at sitcom speeds. Yet there’s still plenty of humor; Noah proves to be a gifted storyteller, able to deftly lace his poignant tales with amusing irony. The first chapter, for instance, begins with him getting thrown out of a car, and later, a traumatic scene where bullies pelt him with berries ends with his mother laughing at her juice-covered son: “I thought this was blood.” All the while, Noah manages to tell the story of South Africa itself. He digs into the country’s history, its factions, its politics, its people, and offers stories how race, gender, class, and language were used to keep the nation divided. By the end, you get the sense that Noah’s been numbed by it all.
Longtime fans of The Daily Show often wonder why Noah never seems as upset and worked-up as his easily-wound predecessor Jon Stewart was. This book seems to hold the answer: He’s a master of self-preservation.