The Week 2 topic for Nonfiction November this year was Nonfiction To Fiction Book Pairings. It’s a review structure that I’ve been dabbling in recently, so I thought I would combine a new set of nonfiction to fiction reviews with links to two earlier ones I posted on the blog in the last few months.
The new reviews for today’s post are for memoir Born A Crime by Trevor Noah and novel Hum If You Don’t Know The Words by Bianca Marais. Both books are set during Apartheid in South Africa, but ultimately only have a few things in common. The most interesting and significant parallel I found between Noah’s true story and that of Marais’ young female white character Robin, are in the spunk and initiative that both show amid extremely trying circumstances. Somehow, Robin’s character felt like it almost had the same level of dogged perseverance as Noah, though they experienced Apartheid with different skin colors and in different decades.
Hope you enjoy my reviews and don’t forget to also check out my two earlier book pairings below.
Born A Crime
by Trevor Noah
Publication Date: November 15th 2016
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Length In Hardcover: 288 pages
Goodreads Rating: 4.45
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.
The humor. During his childhood, Noah was surrounded by violence, experienced economic and physical uncertainty, and had to be hidden when living in certain neighborhoods, lest as a colored child he be taken away from his black mother. Still, Noah is also a comedian, and I found myself laughing out loud at many points in the novel. He’s able to find the humor in many of the trying situations he’s experienced, and he intersperses lighter chapters among the more difficult ones. Reading his memoir made me want to finally watch him on the Daily Show, because the man can do comedy.
The emotion. Between the funny anecdotes that Noah shares about his failed prom dates, many incredible side hustles, and capers he gets into while DJing, he also goes deeper into aspects of his life growing up in South Africa that had a strong impact on him. Noah delves into the experience of growing up colored in a place in which not being black or white meant there was nowhere for you to fit in. He also explores his incredibly strong relationship with his mother and his attempts to connect more with his distant father. There was so much life in this memoir, as well as so much love, hardship, sadness and passion.
The unique perspective on Apartheid. Aside from the basics, my knowledge of Apartheid was admittedly limited before reading these two titles, and I still feel like I want to tackle a few historical nonfiction books on the subject, like Nelson Mandela’s biography. However, I think that Noah’s book provides a really special point of view on the mechanics of Apartheid, not only as someone who experienced it as a colored child, but also as someone who transcended his origins to become internationally famous and also as someone who experienced the end of Apartheid in the early 1990s. I don’t think anyone else would have quite the same perspective or ability to recount such a difficult experience with this much humor and heart.
Felt a bit incohesive. The memoir is structured as a series of essays or vignettes making up each of the chapters, and it doesn’t follow an exact chronological timeline. Each chapter is essentially self-contained, and because of the lack of order, this made for a slightly confusing reading experience. Noah jumped back and forth between his early childhood and his adolescent years, and sometimes it took a few minutes to realize who a reintroduced relative was or figure out how old Noah was in a particular scenario. I think Noah turned to what he knew by structuring the memoir like a series of comedic sketches, but it would have benefited from a more traditional structure.
Wish it included later years. This is what I really missed from the book. Noah has obviously made a global name for himself in comedy, and now hosts and extremely popular late night political comedy show. I wish the book had included more information about his transition out of South Africa, how he made his name in the entertainment business, and also how he kept in touch with relatives in his home country, including his mother. His analytical insights on Apartheid sprinkled throughout the narrative were poignant and thoughtful, but I would have liked an almost post-mortem view of the time from Noah as an adult in perhaps a closing chapter.
Witty, insightful, moving, funny memoir from a truly brilliant comedian who had a very unique experience growing up as a colored boy and young man in the final decade of Apartheid.
Hum If You Don’t Know The Words
Publication Date: July 11th 2017
Publisher: J.P. Putnam’s Sons
Length In Hardcover: 432 pages
Goodreads Rating: 4.22
Life under Apartheid has created a secure future for Robin Conrad, a nine-year-old white girl living with her parents in 1970s Johannesburg. In the same nation but worlds apart, Beauty Mbali, a Xhosa woman in a rural village in the Bantu homeland of the Transkei, struggles to raise her children alone after her husband’s death. Both lives have been built upon the division of race, and their meeting should never have occurred… until the Soweto Uprising, in which a protest by black students ignites racial conflict, alters the fault lines on which their society is built, and shatters their worlds when Robin’s parents are left dead and Beauty’s daughter goes missing.
The audiobook narration. To be honest, I could have read both of these books in their audiobook versions, as I’ve heard that Trevor Noah’s memoir is also excellent in audio. Bianca Marais’ novel was a truly engaging audiobook experience as well. The dual narrator structure, in which one narrator read the Robin chapters of the book and a different one the Beauty chapters, really worked to separate the two perspectives of the characters. The woman who narrated Robin’s parts in particular did a wonderful job of conveying Robin’s South African accent and spunky essence. Since the novel has so much action in it, I was riveted throughout my commute. (The narrators were Katherine McEwan and Bahni Turpin).
Robin’s character. I think child protagonists are particularly hard to get right in a novel like this one which is meant for an adult audience. Bianca Marais does an absolutely amazing job, however, of keeping Robin both interesting and realistic to her adult readers. You get a real window into Robin’s thoughts through her internal monologues, and seeing the violence of Apartheid from her admittedly naive and sheltered eyes helps to introduce the narrator to the more horrifying parts of this reality in a slightly removed and less jarring way. Robin also develops tremendously from the beginning of the novel to the end, in keeping with her many maturing experiences throughout its plot. Overall, I came to really care about Robin and strongly connect with her character.
The level of action and suspense. Literary fiction novels – of which this is one – often are not the right place to look for thrilling action and mystery. In Hum If You Don’t Know The Words, however, Marais is able to combine a very moving and emotional story with a stirring and action-packed plot. From the very beginning of the novel, the reader is sucked in by the account of the Soweto uprising told from both Robin and Beauty’s perspective, and the drama is nearly unremitting after that. Robin is pretty much in movement throughout the entire novel, trying to clumsily solve one problem after the other with her amateur detective skills. There are car chases, stakeouts, adventures, and Marais makes sure to reign all the action in to still make it largely believable.
Different perspectives on Apartheid. This was another aspect for which the book really shone. Primarily written from the diametrically opposite points of view of a white, pre-teen girl and a middle-aged black woman, the book also incorporates a multitude of additional perspectives on the violence and segregation in South Africa in the 70s, during which the story is set. From Robin’s staunchly anti-racist aunt, to her morally deficient parents, to the colored man who works as a handyman in Robin’s building and to the white homosexual men who are friends with Robin’s aunt, Marais multiplies the points of view through which the reader experiences the injustices of the time.
Beauty’s character was less developed. While I found that Robin’s character felt really close and easy to connect to, Beauty’s character, on the other hand, felt more remote and less fully-formed. I don’t know if I may have naturally felt more to relate to in Robin’s experience, or also if perhaps Marais chose to make Beauty a more distant character, knowing that she didn’t have the luxury of letting people into her inner thoughts but rather had to protect herself in a world that did not appreciate her. Either way, I would have liked Beauty’s character to feel more nuanced and accessible, as Robin’s did. I’ve had some people tell me they thought Beauty seemed caricatured, and I almost agree. There still was a lot of substance to her, but she was just slightly out of my grasp as a reader.
With tons of action compared to the average literary fiction novel, Hum If You Don’t Know The Words will lure you in with thrilling scenes, and then make you think and feel through their emotional fallout.
Other Nonfiction To Fiction Book Pairings
Have you read What Made Maddy Run or Reconstructing Amelia? What did you think of them? Do you agree with my ratings? Let me know in the comments.
You can read my most recent Book Pairing review of Elizabeth: The Queen by Sally Bedell Smith and The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett here. I compiled links to all the 28 book reviews I posted in Summer 2017 on my blog in this post – check it out for more recommendations.
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