Book - Nightcrawling

Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley cover

Tony Cross is reading his way through the Booker Prize Longlist 2022. This time he is reading Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley...

Nightcrawling is Leila Mottley’s debut novel. It’s based, as Mottley explains in her Author’s Note, on a real-life story. A story of corruption, exploitation, and abuse by the Oakland Police Department. In Keira Johnson, a 17-year-old girl, Mottley gives the victims of this abuse a voice.

I often mention in my reviews – especially the poetry ones – the role of the writer as witness. The story I always use is that of Anna Akhmatova who, when queuing outside prison during one of Stalin’s purges, is asked ‘Can you describe this?’ and she says, ‘Yes I can’. Mottley’s novel is one of those stories. She says herself, again in the Author’s note:

“The stories of black women, and queer and trans folks, are not often represented in the narratives of violence we see protested, written about, and amplified in most movements, but that does not erase their existence.”

Mottley’s book is a hard read because it is unsparing. The language is blunt and matter of fact, with the occasional drift into something more poetic. It is the story of people on the margins. People who are ignored, abused, and forgotten.

We are constantly aware throughout the book of the threat of violence, and you wonder how people survive. Why doesn’t everyone break? There’s a belief among the rich and the right that people who find themselves struggling and can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps are weak. But they’re the opposite. These people must be stronger than we will ever have to be to survive. As Keira says: “Strut, fly, gallop there are so many ways to walk a street, but none of them will make you bulletproof.”

The other strength to this novel is that it feels real. The people feel like real people. They’re not all the same. They’re not stereotypes. They feel real. Keira is smart and understands the world she moves in. She knows the risks but feels like she has no choice but to take them.

If fiction has any value, it is in helping us to understand people and experiences we will never have. The question then, of course, is what we do with what we have learned. Do we bury it, put the book back on the shelf and forget all about it? Or do we use what we have learned? And how do we use it?

But this isn’t a polemic. There is anger here but it is tightly focused. This is just an illustration of what life is like for some groups of people in modern America. The people who no one cares about, the people who the Police can use with impunity. The implication that sex workers are automatically untrustworthy or without value, which is why they are the constant victims of violence. Not just from the Police but from everyone. That fact haunts this book.

There’s also the feeling, once you’ve finished, that this book has important things to say about telling stories and about speaking out. Keira’s mother says, “Silence starves us, chile. Feed yoself.” And that seems to be at the core of the story too. The value of being heard, of telling your stories and having them heard. In a world with so much noise in it perhaps we need to do a little better at listening to the stories we need to hear. Not the stories we want to hear. And this is a story we should hear, even if it isn’t the easiest story to listen to.

Follow Tony on Twitter @Lokster71

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