Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley
Occasionally, there is a book that comes along that moves you from the start. One that reaches deep within you and either unlocks something that you didn’t realise was there, or forces you to take note of something that you had otherwise put aside, or avoided. In Nightcrawling, the debut novel by seventeen year old Leila Mottley, you find this type of book. It blindsides you with its veracity and its ability to capture so much of life for the characters in the rough world of Oakland, US.
Every sentence in the book seems packed with palpable tension as we, as readers, manipulate the sordid underbelly world of the city. Kiera, or Ki, as she is called, explores the drugs, smoke, music, booze and sex that Oakland offers, but it is the last of which that she finds herself most caught up in. Turning to the streets to pay the rent while those around her slide into increasingly sordid and illegal situations.
The law is portrayed as cruel and unabating with their ruthless approaches. One may question a lot about American policing after reading this as the nigh-on torturous scenes from them are, at times, hard to take and grounded in a sense of realism. More than once the terror that they strike into the heart of the reader is intense and you may find yourself skipping ahead a paragraph or two where necessary. But what that does, is open eyes to the realities of some people in some situations, and that alone is worth the read. However, there is so much more to enjoy, and find yourself completely immersed in this parallel universe that Mottley is able to craft through her visceral imagery and pull-no-punches approach.
Based on the real life death of a cop in the area Mottley grew up in, the story unfolds around Ki and her brother (whom she basically raises after the abandonment of her mother) and the constant struggle for rent, and - more powerfully - staying alive. There were times while reading that one can’t help but let a tear fall, such is the intensity of the moment. Other times there is a poignancy to the writing that you just can’t turn away from. Regret. Consequences. Pain. All there drawing you in to the page like some sort of life force eminating from the words. Such amazing words. At one or two points it seemed the words were too great for the character, like they didn’t quite seem congruent, but the story lifts itself above that and as readers, knowing that the writer was seventeen (!!) makes it understandable.
As a first time writer, there is little to critique. It seems that Mottley has followed Hemingway’s famous advice, paraphrased as bleeding onto the page. The depth and control that she has over the language - while maintaining a realistic voice - is quite remarkable for a seventeen year old - let alone a seasoned writer. Oprah seems to have cottoned on to this also, making Nightcrawling her book club book for July 2022. It’s not difficult to see why that would be the case.
Timing the release of this book perfectly. The world is ready for this level of hard hitting narrative with well-constructed characterisation and a story that will break you down while leaving you wanting more. If this is a first time novel, one can only imagine what is in store with the next book from this young writer.
Overall, Nightcrawling is not an easy read from a content perspective. Some of the images stick to your subconscious for some time, and you find yourself side glancing at police a little more often that you did previously. But from a triumph of writing perspective it may well be among the great reads of 2022. Oprah sure thinks so.
Reviewer: Chris Reed