REVIEW: Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley

In brief: Kiara is seventeen and at the end of her tether. She’s broke, about to be evicted and looking after her neighbour’s son. So she turns to the streets to make money, but becomes embroiled in police corruption.

The good: Realistic and well written with glimmers of hope.

The not-so-good: The characters’ lives are so bleak.

Why I chose it: Heard many good things about this debut novel. Thanks to Bloomsbury for the copy.

Year: 2022

Pages: 269

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Setting: Oakland, California

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Nightcrawling is a strong debut novel from Leila Mottley. It’s a raw, intense and unflinching portrayal of a part of Oakland, California not seen on the TV or spoken about. The characters are poor, with limited options to earn money or even earn respect from those who should be protecting them.

Kiara is seventeen and lives with her brother in the Regal-Hi apartment building, where rents have just risen beyond the capacity of most of the tenants. Her mother is in jail, and Kiara has taken on responsibility for Trevor, whose own mother is high most of the time and unable to care for him. Kiara occasionally gets a few shifts at a liquor store and Marcus has decided to stop working to chase his dream as a rapper. Money is desperately short, as is food. Her friends try to help her out but it’s not enough. Kiara turns to soliciting on the street to make money and it’s not long before things take a darker turn. Some police take advantage of her, then ‘request’ her presence at their parties which are degrading and sickening. When their corruption is discovered within the police force, Kiara is encouraged to testify against them and then hopefully sue. It’s one way of making some money, but at what cost? Kiara will find out who has and hasn’t got her back.

This story is gritty and quite depressing, because it can be true (the story is based on a real-life scandal) and Kiara can’t catch a break. Just when she thinks she has something under control, another obstacle appears. The writing is spectacularly powerful and detailed, which I think adds to the overall tone of the bleak novel. Mottley isn’t afraid to pull out all the stops and show just how brutal things can be for people like Kiara and Trevor. I did have to stop reading at times just for a break from the hopelessness of the setting, but I do admire Mottley for not toning it down. The characters are richly detailed, from Kiara to Trevor and the hopeless Marcus (her brother). Even minor characters like Kiara’s parents are memorable, although sometimes for all the wrong reasons.

While the story is not always easy to read, the writing is strong and determined, painting an evocative picture in giving these forgotten characters a voice.

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