With her debut novel, Nightcrawling, 19-year-old Leila Mottley has achieved sudden fame; her widely acclaimed book is already an Oprah Book Club pick, with Mottley the youngest author so honoured.
I approached the book with trepidation, wondering whether the author’s youth was earning it a disproportionate response. I now think Nightcrawling would be widely praised whatever the age of its author.
Mottley, who was awarded the title of Oakland’s Youth Poet Laureate in 2018, makes it clear that her novel is by no means a fictionalised autobiography. Like her protagonist, Kiara Johnson, Mottley is young, Black and lives in Oakland, California.
Kiara, however, lives in dire poverty and has been abandoned by the adults in her life. Her father died of cancer, her mother is in a halfway house after a suicide attempt. (Mottley, by contrast, thanks both her parents in her Afterword.)
Nightcrawling was inspired by a case in Oakland, in which members of several Bay Area police forces abused their power to exploit a young woman, and got Mottley thinking about the countless sex workers whose stories are never told.
Kiara Johnson, age 17, lives in a rundown apartment in Oakland with her older brother Marcus. Marcus has delusions of grandeur, believing himself the next big rap star; Kiara, a high school dropout, is largely unemployed and can’t pay the rent. She is also surrogate mother to 9-year-old Trevor, whose mother is strung out on drugs.
A chance encounter starts Kiara on lucrative but dangerous sex work; another chance encounter with the cops brings in lots of work with members of the Oakland Police, who know that Kiara can’t refuse. Kiara doesn’t even know their names, only their badge numbers.
When a cop dies by suicide and leaves a note naming Kiara, she is called to be a witness against his abusive colleagues. Success will mean the possibility of suing the police and getting enough money to start a new life; failure, the likelihood that Kiara’s already desperate struggle for food and shelter will become even harder.
Kiara’s two main relationships are with the sweet, neglected Trevor and her friend Ale, whose offerings of food from the family restaurant provide nourishment beyond the physical. Mottley’s depiction of the former relationship is convincing, and the deep love between Kiara and Trevor suffuses the book. “Sometimes I think this little kid might just save me from the swallow of our gray sky, but then I remember that Marcus used to be that small, too …”
Ale’s loyalty wavers at times (she is deeply disapproving of the sex work), although a sex scene between her and Kiara in the book’s final pages seems artificial, contrived and out of place.
While Nightcrawling is frequently harrowing, and readers hoping for a fairytale ending will be disappointed, it is a compelling work deserving of the accolades it has earnt.