Apparently, I decided to start this year’s reading on an intense note. Not on purpose, but this is when my hold on this novel came through and honestly, I have heard only good things about it, so I was super ready to see for myself. It should be clear from the jacket blurb that this is not an emotionally easy or light-content novel, but it is worth mentioning here to be extra sure you are in the mind space to read about sexual exploitation, interactions with law enforcement and incarceration, drugs, child death, and myriad forms of violence. That being said, if you are ready for it, this debut is as impressive as promised.
Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley
“…art is the way we imprint ourselves onto the world so there is no way to erase us.”
Kiara and her brother, Marcus, are just barely managing to make it through each day in their East Oakland home, struggling to find work after dropping out of high school and dealing with the general fracturing of their family after death and prison have left the two of them alone. While Marcus attempts to find solace in music, and “make it” as a rapper, Kiara is left trying to pay the bills (including their ever increasing rent under new apartment ownership) and keep their nine-year-old neighbor, Trevor, safe, after his mother abandoned him. After an interaction with a drunk stranger, Kiara falls into an unexpected (and unwanted), but seemingly only option in her desperate situation: nightcrawling. This in turn leads her into a situation where she is servicing law enforcement officers, and when her name is mentioned in an internal investigation (a massive scandal within the Oakland PD), Kiara’s world crashes down around her even further.
This novel burst onto the literary scene, as it were, with a lot of hype because of the (super young) age of the debut author and the way it deals, head on, with numerous complex, raw, issues that have been (and if they aren’t for you, should be) at the forefront of American consciousness. I had both the physical and audiobook versions for this one, and I was glad of it (so I could reread certain parts and because the narrator for the audio was fantastic). I was about a quarter of the way through the book before I wrote my first reaction/comment in the Notes on my phone (where I track my thoughts while reading for use in these reviews later), and that reaction was: “I am a quarter of the way through and haven’t written a single note – this novel is mesmerizing. Something about the tone of the narration is unlike anything I’ve read, in its grounding in a very specific contemporary perspective that is often discussed and called out in news and public health arenas, but never with its ability to speak for itself like this, in this format, on this stage, with this kind of full individuality.” I usually try to just incorporate these things into my overall review, but this one felt to me like I needed to give it its own space/attention like this. Only a quarter of the way in and I could already tell this novel was both something that special and so well written that I was almost too pulled in to even recognize it. What a feat.
After that, I had *so many* thoughts that my feelings (and my notes about them) are now a bit overwhelming. In fact, I have put off writing this review for over a week because I’m a little intimidated by the prospect. This story is crushing, in the way that it shows how deeply children can be failed by their parents, because they were failed by their own before them, and the cycle continues and the system makes no space for breaking it, for change or redemption. Like, what kind of world have we created (and looked away from) when a 17-year-old girl legit feels like the choices she makes in this book are the only ones she has (in some cases naive to what those choices might truly mean)? How much has everyone and everything that is supposed to protect her, failed her? How does a person as young as Kiara get to this “nothing left to lose” kind of place and where are the nets meant to prevent that? It’s immeasurable, soul-crushing.
The way that Kiara sees herself and her choices and how (by whom) she is taken advantage of may be different than which parts each reader would feel are “worst” or “the key message.” I love that she gets to tell these experiences in her own voice, to tell the world which parts are ok and which are not, because everyone deserves to define that for themselves. But at the same time, the reader must remember that she is still so young, that she is still absolutely coming of age, just having to do so within a framework and situations that make her seem like a much older person. Maturation happens the same, biologically, no matter the social environment; one cannot forget that being thrust into adult situations do not magically make an adolescent older. Kiara is so young, naive in knowledge of bigger life patterns, if not in day to day life realities. And Mottley writes that combination/juxtaposition to perfection, with a deft literary device of the names Kiara chooses to use with different people/situations, as she separates out these different aspects of her life and which represents the person she most wants to be. It made this novel a coming of age, of finding who you are and what you want out of life, independent of others’ needs pulling on you, in such a unique way.
In the same vein, this situation with Trevor (Kiara’s young neighbor), and the two of them being all each other has, even though it’s not completely healthy nor fully what either needs, pulled so deeply on my heartstrings. When social services finally makes a move, the fact that it may be totally necessary doesn’t make it easier for them (or me as the reader). And it begs the question, how can we make the system better so they get what they need from both the system and their natural “community” at the same time? How can they remain in each others lives, but in a way that allows them to get the other things they need, the things that they are too young to have to be responsible for themselves? Just…my heart broke during that part almost more than any of the other heartbreaking things in this book.
There were a few other major themes or moments that particularly spoke to me, or made me angry, that I want to call out in this last section of the review. They may feel scattered, but it is what it is. UGH (specifically in relation to the actions/commentary of the female police officer and interim police chief), why are women always hardest on each other and why is the default that the victim will be punished and the perpetrators will get away with it (and that reality is actively threatened)?! I mean the way that power protects itself is enraging, in general and in the way that Mottley reflects that reality in this novel. Another UGH, why is sexual exploitation always seen as a moral failing of the victim (who is usually female)?! Whether it is a purposeful and freely made choice or a last ditch effort from a person with little autonomy and control grasping at thinking they’re making this decision for themselves (because what is the benefit, in the struggle for survival, of thinking another way and admitting that loss of control?), why TF are people like Kiara the ones vilified, and not the people using her?? A final UGH, what a real and horribly unsatisfactory plot-based ending – the “justice” system sucks (especially in bringing said justice to its own ranks). But oh, the promise and potential for renewal in the interpersonal-based ending, amongst Kiara and Trevor and Ale, is….despite everything it leaves behind a sense of wholeness. And, just, from start to finish, the metaphor of the apartment complex’s shit pool is spectacular writing.
This is such a long review, but there was no way to make it otherwise. This book is just, alive, with the kind of lyrical burning that lulls you into mesmerized submission and then blinds and leaves permanent scars. In the Author’s Note, Mottley speaks about her goal of writing a story of the city of Oakland, and of giving this “pulled from the headlines” story the chance to be told from the perspective, and within the control of, the survivor. She speaks of her own experiences with how Black women end up caring for and holding up everything around them, and are left with an emptiness around who they are and what they want and deserve, and she wanted to give a fullness and nuance of a life to the person behind the name in the papers. And wow was she beyond successful.
And you have to have known a review like this would mean lots of pull quotes/passages at the end:
“Death is easier to live through unseen.”
“It ain’t my place to have a problem with somebody else’s survival.”
“Mama used to tell me that blood is everything, but I think we’re all out here unlearning that sentiment, scraping our knees and asking strangers to patch us back up. […] …my brother asked me to do the one thing I know I shouldn’t […]: hollow myself out for another person who ain’t gonna give a shit when I’m empty.”
“School’s got as many potholes as the streets, always chipping, always leaving us to trip.”
“It ain’t that I’m not scared. I am. But I know we’ll lose so much more if I don’t keep us afloat…”
“There are consequences to surviving out here, just ’cause you too young to know it yet don’t mean I gotta apologize for the truth. I spent every day for years apologizing, praying up some heaven that might forgive me. I don’t got no breath left for that.”
“I have a body and a family that needs me, so I resigned to what I have to do to keep us whole…”;
“It is me and Cop and car now. Ain’t it funny to be so scared of being saved?”
“Street money still money.”
“I wonder if they’ll ever chant about the women too, and not just the ones murdered, but the particular brutality of a gun barrel to a head. The women with no edges laid, with matted hair and drooping eyes and no one filming to say it happened, only a mouth and some scars.”
“That’s sort of what this feels like: the helplessness of it. Like standing on the road that leads to here and noticing a path you didn’t know existed and not being able to take it. Like the road that leads to here was never the only road and time made me forget that until these sobbing moments when I remember, when the fog clears and I’m looking back and there’s a fork on the ground, another way.”
“Don’t help me to fight a life I’m stuck in.”
“We both know that pretty soon we will have to contend with what it means to have lost it all and still have each other. To have lost a roof and found a home.”
2 thoughts on “Nightcrawling”
I liked this one a lot, even though it was SO dark, because there was some beautiful language and some moments of real happiness in all the messed-up experiences.
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Yes – a ton of credit to the author for those bright spots within an otherwise deeply challenging reality. And fantastic writing, for sure; what a narrative voice.