Review: Make time for astonishing debut ‘Nightcrawling’

“Nightcrawling” by Leila Mottley (Alfred A. Knopf)

“Nightcrawling” belongs near the top of any “best debut novel of 2022” list.

This is not an easy read. The words flow easily, with a visceral, in-your-face voice, but the subject matter is graphic and relentless.

The first-person narrator is Kiara Johnson, Ki for short, a 17-year-old young woman living in East Oakland, California. When we first meet Ki, she’s living with her slightly older brother,...

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“Nightcrawling” by Leila Mottley (Alfred A. Knopf)

“Nightcrawling” belongs near the top of any “best debut novel of 2022” list.

This is not an easy read. The words flow easily, with a visceral, in-your-face voice, but the subject matter is graphic and relentless.

The first-person narrator is Kiara Johnson, Ki for short, a 17-year-old young woman living in East Oakland, California. When we first meet Ki, she’s living with her slightly older brother, Marcus (he’s just 18), at an apartment complex called the Regal-Hi. Over time we learn why there are no parents in the picture, but it’s clear from page one that Ki is growing up fast, with no role models and no community support. In fact, she’s the one trying to help others — basically raising the 9-year-old son of her drug-addicted neighbor, Trevor, who wouldn’t get to the school bus stop or have anything to eat if Ki didn’t step up. Times are tough, to say the least, and when Ki wanders into a strip club hoping to apply for a bartender job, things get a whole lot tougher.

Mottley doesn’t shy away from what comes next. A customer assumes Ki is a prostitute, tells her he “knows a spot,” and in less than a page her “cheek is pressed to the cement” of the sidewalk. The rape is over in seconds and as Ki writes, ‘“I’m not even participating, just letting the sky soothe me as it happens… and yet it’s so dull I’m not ever sure I’m here.”

The events of the novel cascade after that as the title verb becomes Ki’s way of paying the rent. Her brother is lost in his own world, trying to make a rap album and follow in the footsteps of their rich Uncle Ty. After another sexual encounter with a smirking city cop who tells her prostitution is a misdemeanor, Ki finds herself repeatedly victimized by members of law enforcement, until an internal investigation reveals her name and she’s suddenly the star witness in a massive sexual exploitation scandal involving the Oakland Police Department.

Mottley’s writing style fits the story perfectly. Ki’s voice is so honest and vulnerable, even as she’s telling stories from the past when her family was at least partially intact and life didn’t seem so hopeless. “That was before I learned that life won’t give you reasons for none of it, that sometimes fathers disappear and little girls don’t make it to another birthday and mothers forget to be mothers,” she writes.

The novel would be completely bleak without a character named Alé, a friend of Ki’s who works at her parents’ restaurant and cooks for her at least once a week to keep her from starving to death. The evolution of that positive relationship serves as the counter to the depraved inhumanity Ki experiences on the streets.

Inspired by the true 2015 story of Oakland cops who sexually exploited a young woman, “Nightcrawling” heralds a bold new voice in fiction.

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