Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Chapter 1 begins when Trevor’s mother throws him out of a minibus, setting the tone for a series of events throughout the book where unreliable transportation results in an unfavorable outcome. In a world where most people stay close to home, both out of tradition and out of necessity, Patricia’s car is a rarity and the one means by which she and Trevor can get a glimpse at how other people live. The fact that the car constantly breaks down highlights how precarious their existence is and how hard-won their opportunities are.
Owning his own garage seems like a big opportunity for Abel, but the year that the family spends living there is the worst time of Trevor’s life. He sleeps in cars, works on cars, and digs grease out from under his nails, all for the business to fail in the end. When Abel goes back on his promise to lend Trevor his car to pick up Babiki, he figuratively sets the wheels in motion for what will become the worst date of Trevor’s life. At the end of the book, the crime that lands Trevor in jail is also related to one of Abel’s cars, yet another vehicle that presents an opportunity only to end in failure.
In Chapter 1, Noah describes the Xhosa people as a group that tried to learn from their European invaders so that they could better understand their enemy and strategize against them. Part of this strategy was to learn English, and as a Xhosa woman, Patricia learned to speak English as well. Her English allows her to work in Johannesburg and communicate with Trevor’s father. Teaching English to Trevor is one of her primary strategies for ensuring his success in life.
Trevor’s ability to speak English, and other languages, gives him an advantage over other kids in his neighborhood. Though he must travel far to get there, he receives a better education at the English-speaking schools than he would have at schools closer to home. At school, his ability to speak tribal languages wins him acceptance from people of various races and classes. As a young adult, it also helps get him out of trouble.
Young Trevor is constantly trying to evade punishment, because he knows that it will come in the form of a disciplinary beating. Noah does not describe what it physically feels like when his mother beats him, but rather the circumstances leading up to it and the reassurances that she offers afterward. Patricia, whose parents beat her as well, tells him that her beatings come from a place of love.
When Abel beats up the bullies, Trevor sees no such love or purpose. At this point, Abel appears to be a dangerous man. When Abel strikes Patricia, he does so to “put her in her place.” He beats her in front of Trevor and without shame or explanation. At the time, Abel apologizes only so that Patricia will not leave him. The beatings halt for a while, but later begin again, revealing the cyclical nature of abuse that Patricia will not escape until the book’s end.