A gripping, wrenching story of survival in modern America
A young Black woman who walks the streets of Oakland and stumbles headlong into the failure of its justice system…
Kiara Johnson and her brother Marcus are barely scraping by in a squalid East Oakland apartment complex optimistically called the Royal-Hi. Both have dropped out of high school, their family fractured by death and prison. But while Marcus clings to his dream of rap stardom, Kiara hunts for work to pay their rent — which has more than doubled — and to keep the 9-year-old boy next door, abandoned by his mother, safe and fed.
One night, what begins as a drunken misunderstanding with a stranger turns into the job Kiara never imagined wanting but now desperately needs: nightcrawling. And her world breaks open even further when her name surfaces in an investigation that exposes her as a key witness in a massive scandal within the Oakland police department.
Leila Mottley’s debut novel has been getting a lot of positive pre-publication buzz. I was luck enough to get a DRC, and am very happy to report that the buzz is justified: it’s a very well-written, engaging, and moving novel about a young woman’s attempts to survive in a modern America that has little compassion for people like her. Gripping, I was hooked from very early on.
Kiara Johnson is living in Oakland, in a small, neglected apartment complex. Her father’s dead, her mother’s in prison, and her brother is slowly pulling away from her. Kiara has dropped out of school, and is engaged in a daily struggle to scrounge together work in order to make rent and pay for food. Marcus, her older brother, is chasing stardom as a rapper, but lacks the talent and connections to come close. He’s bitter, and has difficulty holding down a job. They’re constantly under threat of eviction, but eventually Marcus moves out, leaving Kiara to deal on her own. Still only 17, and desperate to make ends meet, she stumbles into the life of a nightcrawler, selling her body. One fateful night, she gets pinched by the cops, who take her as their own perk — forcing her to serve their needs and wants, under threat of jail, physical abuse, and more. Sometimes they pay, often they don’t. At the same time as navigating this new dangerous life, she takes over the care of her neighbour’s young son, Trevor, adding to her considerable burden.
Nightcrawling is not the easiest read — despite Mottley’s superb prose, there’s no hiding that the universe is not going to hand Kiara many breaks. The author focuses on Kiara’s internal strength, and the hope she holds on to that things could get better. Also, despite the pain and struggles she faces, she is still capable of nurturing that hope, as well as love for her friends, family, and Trevor. She retains her compassion for others. It’s an incredibly moving portrait.
“It ain’t my place to have a problem with somebody else’s survival.”
There were a few times when I wondered if the novel was slightly underdeveloped, but I came to realize that this might have been intentional: Mottley keeps the story very closely focused on Kiara, and is told exclusively from her perspective. As a result, we aren’t presented with scenes of broader context, or of events taking place away from her experience. This ultimately gives the novel extra punch, as Kiara continues to be rocked by events completely outside of her control. The police investigation mentioned in the synopsis is a case in point: so much happens out of Kiara’s view and knowledge, and we are with her for each buffeting development.
While Kiara’s story is the central premise of the novel, it’s worth noting Trevor’s, which I found equally devastating and painful. He and Kiara form a real bond, one akin to both big sister and little brother, but also parent-child. She cares for him, makes sure he’s fed and goes to school. She shields him, as much as she is able, from the pain of his situation — his mother is absent, clearly struggling with her own issues, and often absent. The penultimate chapter in which he appears was incredibly moving and devastating. Mottley does a fantastic job of quietly writing his anguish.
Mottley’s prose is excellent throughout, and her characters are all three dimensional and engaging. The storytelling is evocative, yet never over-done. An incredibly accomplished debut, Nightcrawling is very highly recommended.
Leila Mottley’s Nightcrawling is due to be published by Knopf in North America and Bloomsbury in the UK, on June 7th.
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Review copy received via Edelweiss