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It isn’t every day, week, month or even year that a first-time novelist bursts onto the scene with the acclaim of publications like the New York Times or celebrities like Oprah. It’s even rarer that the author is only in her teens. But such is the case with Leila Mottley and her startling, incisive debut, NIGHTCRAWLING.

Seventeen-year-old Kiara and her older brother, Marcus, have managed to just barely scrape by in the years since their father was wrongfully imprisoned and killed because of his years without access to stable healthcare and their mother succumbed to the stress of depression. Only a few years apart and a heartbeat away from one another, the siblings have paid the rent on their family’s studio in Oakland. Even though neither of them were able to graduate high school or embark on ambitious careers, they’ve found a careful balance in their apartment building full of families with stories like theirs and mothers who know how to care for children they didn’t birth or raise.

"With a ripped-from-the-headlines premise and a character with an unforgettable voice, NIGHTCRAWLING has all the hallmarks of a book so evocative of a time and place in the American justice system that it seems impossibly prescient."

But with gentrification and inflation, their landlord has just doubled their rent, and for the first time their demise seems imminent instead of possible. While Kiara takes to the streets every day to beg for work --- her humiliating lack of a resume preventing her from even the easiest jobs, the ones privileged people claim that “anyone” can do --- Marcus has become obsessed with making it as a rapper, a goal as ungrounded in reality as winning the lottery. As Kiara watches her family disappoint her yet again and begins to take charge of the care and support of her neighbor’s nine-year-old son, she indulges in one mindless drunken encounter that shapes the trajectory of her life.

With limited options and even more limited hope, Kiara resorts to gut-wrenching, humanity-reducing get-togethers with men for as low as $50. Early on, she meets a sex worker named Camila who urges her to find a “daddy,” another man who can claim to own her and call it safety. But she quickly sees that this is yet another form of imprisonment and strikes out on her own. Still, her combination of naivety and desperation land her smack in the crosshairs of Oakland’s finest, and they have their own angle on the exploitation of women.

Before long, Kiara is tied to several members of the Oakland Police Department --- men she knows only by vague descriptions and badge numbers --- who call on her to add a female touch to their poker games, to be traded by their “brothers” on their birthdays, and to give up every last scrap of belief she had in the justice system (which wasn’t much, given the stories and experiences she already has observed in her community). Even more cruelly, the men often refuse to pay her, choosing instead to recognize their transactions with tips on which parties will be raided, the honor of sharing a bed with them for a night, or forcing her to watch loved ones get arrested under false pretenses while she walks away “safe.”

All the while, Kiara watches as her community, family and personal life fall apart, and the deepest, most unholy corruptions of the justice system expose themselves to her, showing off their seedy underbellies only to turn right around and maul her.

Kiara’s life changes --- and not, of course, for the better --- when an internal investigation into the actions of members of the police department results in an explosive leak. It shakes up the airwaves, dazzles the media, and suggests for the first time that someone somewhere might care about the indulgences and criminal abuses of power of the men who swear to uphold and protect. But justice is a long, dangerous operation. Kiara knows better than most that having a name, a face and, worst of all, a woman’s body often means that while justice may come, it never comes without a terrible price.

As Kiara falls deeper and deeper into sex work (read: exploitation --- and of a minor, no less), Mottley writes, “I wanted the streetlight brights, the money in the morning, not the back alleys. Not the sirens. But, here we are. Streets always find you in the daylight, when you least expect them to. Night crawling up to me when the sun’s out.” These lines not only perfectly embody Kiara, who wants so badly to do “right” --- to find a job, earn a living, maybe even one day pay taxes --- they also speak to the crisis of a generation, a class, a race. Even in Kiara’s own life, a world where she and her best friend regularly crash funerals for free food, she is often judged for her choices and scolded for her desperation. But what makes these actions so crushing is how frequently and desperately she tries to embark on the life her country has promised her.

Kiara is a gorgeously written character. She is neither supernaturally wise nor childishly naive, but perfectly situated in the middle. She is world-weary, but occasionally devastatingly hopeful and then immediately disappointed in herself for wanting more. At the same time, the world Mottley crafts is sharp and vivid, dazzlingly real and unapologetically frank in its reveals about the deepest levels of corruption and abuse.

With a ripped-from-the-headlines premise and a character with an unforgettable voice, NIGHTCRAWLING has all the hallmarks of a book so evocative of a time and place in the American justice system that it seems impossibly prescient. But what Mottley has done with her characters, her electrifying prose and her urgent call for action makes her debut an instant classic.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on June 24, 2022

by Leila Mottley

  • Publication Date: June 7, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0593318935
  • ISBN-13: 9780593318935