Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley
Published by Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date: June 7, 2022
Genres: Book Clubs, Debut, Fiction, Coming-of-age, Contemporary, Literary
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At a time when most teenage girls are busy with dating, hanging out with friends, and choosing colleges, 17-year-old Kiara is facing a rent increase that is likely to render her homeless. She lives in a rundown East Oakland apartment with her older brother Marcus. Their father is dead and their mother is in prison. This is the world explored in Leila Mottley’s gritty debut novel, Nightcrawling.
It quickly becomes apparent that no one is looking out for Kiara, including her brother who is in his 20s, but so focused on becoming a rapper he makes no effort to get a paying job. They’re about to be evicted, so Kiara drops out of school to work, but with no resume and no skills the best she can do is part-time cleaning. Until too many sweet fruity drinks in a bar ends with her having sex with an older White stranger. A man who, before he leaves, gives her money. So much money that it seems like the obvious answer to all her problems. A solution where she is in control and can quickly make the money she needs. Kiara becomes a sex worker and is getting by until a chance encounter with the police puts her in an untenable position and leads to her being a key witness in a government prosecution. All of which is based on real events in Oakland.
This is a visceral novel. Mottley is a poet and emotion spills off every page of Nightcrawling. It’s all about survival and fear. Kiara is street-smart, but has no time to think about the future or consequences. She believes that the presence of one of her brothers’ friends (whom she swears to secrecy) is enough protection while she’s working. Underneath her armor is the naivete of a teenage girl soured by her experience with local government, be it criminal justice, welfare, the schools, or CPS. She faced with indifference on all sides, even from her brother who has no interest in anyone’s future but his own.
There are moments in Nightcrawling when I questioned or judged Kiara’s choices. I had to stop and remind myself the world I live in is not the one Kiara does. Hers is one of desperation, something I’ve never had to feel, so it’s not for me to understand. I don’t know what I would do if faced with eviction, scavenging for food and clothes. It’s heartbreaking and surreal and at times, I felt like a trauma tourist, as if I shouldn’t be reading something so real, so painful. And yet, it’s exactly the kind of life that needs to be heard.
Nightcrawling is uncomfortable reading, but even at its darkest, Kiara remains vibrant. She loves and finds joy even as she’s reckoning with painful realities. It’s worth noting that the author, Mottley, was 18 when she wrote the novel. She was also Oakland’s Youth Poet Laurate when she was 16. I cannot wait to see what she writes next.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Knopf in exchange for an honest review.*