Written by a 17-year-old, this much-hyped book fires on all cylinders

Nightcrawling is the much-hyped debut novel from Leila Mottley, the 2018 Youth Poet Laureate from Oakland, California. It reaches Australia after a fierce publishing auction for the US rights to the novel and its ripped-from-the headlines premise. Quite literally – the novel is inspired by news coverage of a 2015 scandal involving the sexual exploitation of a young sex worker by Oakland police and the subsequent attempts to cover it up. The protagonist, East Oakland teen Kiara Johnson, is the author’s avatar to explore “the types of violence that Black and Brown women face regularly”.

When we meet Kiara Johnson her prospects are bleak, and about to get worse. With her father dead after clashing with the law, and a mother in a halfway house after attempting suicide, Kiara is effectively orphaned.

Leila Mottley began writing Nightcrawling when she was 17.Credit:Magdalena Frigo

It falls on her to not only to raise herself and look after a nine-year-old neighbour abandoned by his mother, but to act as primary caregiver for her angry and disenfranchised brother, Marcus, who clings to delusional dreams of a career as a rapper. Together, they subsist in a grungy studio apartment – crack addict next door, dog shit in the swimming pool – on which the landlord has just doubled the rent.

A high-school dropout with little experience, Kiara is unable to find work, until the night she finds herself drunk in a strip club where she loses her virginity to a stranger who tips her $200. From there she stumbles into sex work, and, after an assault by a client, attracts the attention of the police.

That’s only the start of her ordeal. She is inducted into an organised ring of statutory rapists within the Oakland Police Department, then recruited as a witness by police investigating corruption within their own ranks. This event, which should be her deliverance, only makes things worse, as those who claim to want to help seek to exploit Kiara to their own ends.

Predation and the systems of exploitation that women and girls of colour endure in contemporary America are the driving forces of this novel. Kiara is your classic YA protagonist – brave, resilient, sensitive, and golden-hearted despite her hardships – but her journey is phenomenally gruelling.

Nightcrawling is a panoramic portrait of the systems designed to make lives like Kiara’s disposable, and ripe for exploitation. She lives at the intersection of racism, poverty and misogyny, and Mottley’s depiction of that crushing oppression feels vital in this cultural moment. As a novelist, Mottley has a poet’s ear for dialogue. She captures the rhythms of speech – the code-switching of the Oakland streets, the unique language of children and teens, and of slick lawyers and slimy cops – with virtuosic talent.

With that comes a poet’s love of imagery and language. Not one sentence in the novel could be accused of being underwritten. Here is Kiara going for a walk with her friend, Alé: “Oakland doesn’t operate on a grid. We wind here. The streets pulling us closer to the bay, to where the salt melts with street and bikes turn to trucks that moan and thrust forward at every light. Then they push us back towards the buildings, where shouts line the perimeter of the sidewalks and, with Alé here, I don’t bother trying to decipher what they’re saying or who they’re saying it to. Just let the noises scatter, like chunks of asphalt on the road.”

The writing is rich to the point of distraction. In the space of any given paragraph the overlapping metaphors build up and mix uneasily, sometimes bordering on being impenetrable.

Between the harder-to-parse writing and the intensity of the story and subject, Nightcrawling is a tough hang. But therein lies its value to readers in Australia, perhaps. In tone, delivery, richness, and sheer heart, Nightcrawling straddles poetics and YA readability while it interrogates hard truths of the world, grappling with cultural reckonings still necessary in this country.

What it lacks in concision it makes up for with delight in the rhythm of language, and the unembarrassed energy of a young author – Mottley was just 17 when she started writing – firing on all cylinders.

Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley is published by Bloomsbury, $29.99.

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