I cannot think of a better way to end my year of reading than with an amazing debut novel like Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley. This book shook me to my core. I had the best conversation with Morgan @prettylittlebookshelf that kept me thinking and reflecting on the tough themes this book covers, including institutional racism, poverty, classism, and the deep roots of systemic racism and sexism against Black women and Black children. This book is deep, troubling, but the horrible reality for many. If I could recommend a book that everyone should read and sit with, it is this one. You will root for Kiara well past the last page.
Kiara and her brother, Marcus, are scraping by in their East Oakland apartment. Barely making ends meet, their rent is once again raised, and Kiara needs to find a way to keep them housed. Her brother is chasing wild dreams of becoming a famous rapper, while her mother is incarcerated, and she is left to fend for herself. Kiara finds herself wrapped up in the underground world that happens on the streets after dark; nightcrawling. Kiara's name is released as a key witness in a massive scandal with the Oakland Police Department.
I don't cry easily, but this book got me. Written from Kiara's perspective, the reader is immersed in her life struggles where she simply gets by day to day. She picks up random shifts at a nearby liquor store and spends her days going from business to business asking for work. Her mother is incarcerated, and her brother took over custody of her because she is still a minor at 17 years old. School is outside of the question, because that doesn't pay the bills or fill their stomachs, but she has a soft spot in her heart for her neighbor's school age son, Trevor, who she takes under her wing. After a serious of events, Kiara finds herself with no other option to earn quick money, than prostitution. As the story progresses, the reader quickly forgets that she is a young girl because the world she lives in treats her like an adult. When Kiara is listed as a key witness in a police sex scandal, she reconciles with the fact she was forced to grow up at such a young age and subjected to things that no one, child or adult, deserves.
Mottley's writing is raw, vulnerable and intense. I was immersed in Kiara's story and barely resurfaced for air. So many people in Kiara's life fail her and those who are supposed to protect her are the ones causing her the most harm. It is impossible to not feel like your heart was ripped out of your chest as your progress through her story. Nightcrawling had me deeply reflecting on the hardships Black women and Black children are subjected to. I thought to myself, what if Kiara was white. Now that would be a completely different story. Why is it that when a young Black girl is listed in a police scandal involving sex with minors, no one blinks an eye, but if news got out that a young white girl was selling her body on the streets, now you have people's attention? My convo with Morgan really drove the point home that Black children are treated like adults and not allowed the innocence and grace that children deserve and Black women in particular are assumed to be strong and, therefore, put in positions like Kiara was where she had to fend for herself. Black girls are sexualized, and their bodies are deemed disposable. Mottley is not unearthing new issues, these are issues that are alive and present in our world. Between her mother, her brother, those sworn to protect and serve, the court system; Kiara was failed.
Nightcrawling also made me think about what I would do if I lived in abject poverty like Kiara. When you don't know where your next meal is coming from or how you can make enough money to cover your next month's rent so you won't be kicked to the street, wouldn't you do anything? If you are that desperate, you would. Yet so many look down on those living in poverty and making hard, impossible and often illegal choices, like prostitution. And for those in poverty, what jobs are readily available for them? It is something to think about.
There are some trigger/content warnings that I want readers to be aware of. This book is not for the faint of heart, but it is one I will recommend for years to come. I also highly recommend reading the author's note. I am blown away that Nightcrawling is Mottley's first novel and to learn that she began writing this book at the tender age of seventeen.
Content warnings: sexual assault of a child, prostitution, systemic and institutional racism, sexism, incarceration, death of a child, childhood neglect
"I was a child."
"Letting the streets have you is like planning your own funeral. 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."
“Mama used to tell me that blood is everything, but I think we’re all out here unlearning that sentiment, scraping our knees and asking strangers to patch us back up.”
“I am telling her how these streets open us up and remove the part of us most worth keeping: the child left in us.”