Leila Mottley became the youngest author ever to make the Booker Prize longlist this year – she is 20 years old. Her novel Nightcrawling follows a protagonist, Kiara, who is only slightly younger and struggles to survive and find shelter in Oakland. Maybe you can already tell: this novel is heavy stuff. I recommend reading the epilogue first, as the author explains that she wrote this novel to give narrative control to a young Black woman experiencing sexual exploitation.
Kiara is an incredibly strong character. Her father recently died of prostate cancer because doctors misinterpreted his symptoms while he was in prison. Her mother then fell into a hole, with the result that she also ended up in prison. Her brother dreams of breaking through as a rapper and becoming really rich. Knowing that her brother is delusional, Kiara is more pragmatic: sex work seems to be her only option. She soon runs into police officers who threaten to arrest her if she doesn’t do as they tell her. She often gets no money from them. She experiences degrading moments but pays her rent and that keeps her going. In addition to the harshness and injustice, the novel is given life by some loving relationships: Kiara takes care of her 10-year-old neighbour Trevor, and has her friend Alejandra who occasionally provides her with homemade tacos.
Leila Mottley has a talent for storytelling, and the fact that some events are predictable doesn’t detract from the novel’s strength. Nightcrawling discusses politically relevant topics that many would shy away from. But it is also due to this subject matter that the novel is a heavy load to bear. Be prepared for this if you are going to read this important, heartbreaking book.
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