How you respond to Nightcrawling, the debut work by Leila Mottley, might depend on whether you believe in the novel as a vehicle for social commentary.
The book tells of 17-year-old Kiara Johnson living on the brink of homelessness in Oakland in the US. Her mother is in a halfway house; her father is dead. Still only a child herself, she finds herself supporting her brother as he pursues an improbable rap career, and caring for the son of her addict neighbour. Fear of ending up on the streets forces her to take on sex work, and eventually she becomes the victim of sexual exploitation by a group of policemen. According to the author’s note, the book was inspired by a similar story of sexual exploitation and subsequent cover-up by members the Oakland Police Department, in 2015.
As a critique of the nature of policing, the way society treats women (especially minorities and trans women) and sex workers, and the impact of the ever-widening class divide in the US, Nightcrawling has merit. The close, first-person narrative places us in the psyche of a determined yet vulnerable young woman. Kiara’s descriptions of fellow sex workers – one is “a woman who survives, even if that survival means tricking herself into believing this world is something it is not”; another “smiles this brutal, hollow smile that doesn’t belong to her face” – provide a poignant reflection of her own state of being. The book expresses the humanity behind social injustice issues.
Those of us who have grown suspect of the idea of a novel as social commentary, however, may feel something lacking here. The characters we expect to be evil are evil, the characters we expect to carry the book’s moral flame do so. There isn’t enough sticky middle ground, or simple daily realism to make this more than a didactic exercise.
Furthermore, the language has the semblance of richness, but is in fact quite hollow. To get out of bed is “to put feet to floor”. A mother is “this woman whose skin I crawled out of”. A loved one looks at Kiara with “all the pity of an owned tongue looking at a caged one.” I can’t be the only one who doesn’t know what an owned (or caged) tongue is. The poetics make the sentiment less rather than more clear.
All of this adds up to make Nightcrawling a perfectly adequate, if not mind-blowing novel. Perhaps that’s what debuts are for. There’s promise here, but no fireworks.