Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley positively springs from the Booker Prize 2022 longlist, and not merely for its conspicuously pink cover. At the age of 20, Mottley is the youngest author ever to make the longlist, dazzling with a debut coming-of-age novel set on the meanest streets of Oakland, California. This is 17-year-old Kiara’s story, technically still a child, but with adult-sized problems. When a dire financial emergency pushes Kiara into prostitution, her ‘baby ho,’ status renders her irresistible to a certain type of man, some of them even sporting Oakland Police Department uniform. What follows is a blistering study of corruption, abuse of power, and young black womanhood.
Home is a rented apartment, on shabby streets defined by their litter of cigarette butts, liquor stores and ‘adult playgrounds masquerading as street corners.’ It’s where Kiara shoulders the burden of a hand-to-mouth existence, while her unemployed older brother, Marcus, indulges his fantasy of becoming a rapper. Their father is dead and their mother languishing in a halfway house for ‘compromised persons,’ the reason becoming clear later, a series of events that have led to Marcus developing an aversion.
‘Marcus can’t stand nothing red after Mama’
Meanwhile next door, their crackhead neighbour is rarely at home, leaving her nine-year-old son, Trevor, to his own devices. Kiara shoulders this too, making sure he gets to school and has enough to eat.
Forced to fill the adult void, Kiara attempts to find work, but with a literally blank resumé, it proves impossible. In desperation, she applies for bar work at a local strip club, only to be told she’s too young to serve the patrons, a rule that may apply to alcohol, but according to one sleazy customer, doesn’t extend to sex. He takes her virginity and leaves her with two hundred dollars and the resolve to do it again, just until she’s paid the rent.
Mottley’s evocation of an urban youth underclass is fierce and insightful. In Kiara’s world, subsistence is fragile, threatened by rampant societal inequality and poverty. Prostitution seems like a way to keep the wolf from the door, although in this very 21st century bildungsroman, the wolf takes many guises, a brutally disillusioning encounter with a cop leading to Kiara’s sexual involvement with a string of police officers. This ‘revolving door of badges,’ is set to spin into a frenzied public scandal as exploitation, corruption and suicide leads to an electrified courtroom and a grand jury.
Based on real events in Oakland in 2015, Mottley has been contemplating the case for years. Here, she gives the bones of that story to the vulnerable and exploited Kiara. Although Kiara often feels isolated, describing her situation as ‘Night crawling up to me when the sun’s out,’ the inevitable darkness within the novel is leavened by radiant moments of love and the will to survive. An exploration of the expectations and pressures placed upon young black girls, it’s astonishing to think that Mottley was only seventeen herself when she began writing this galvanising debut.
A writer to watch.
Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley is published by Bloomsbury, 227 pages.