By Leila Mottley
I received an ARC of Nightcrawling from Knopf Publishing Group in exchange for an honest review.
Nightcrawling is a frustrating book. It is an accomplished debut novel from a young writer (Oakland’s former youth poet laureate, seventeen years old when she wrote Nightcrawling) with a strong authorial voice—it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Mottley has a great book, or books, in her future—but it is still very much a debut novel, weighed down by all the shortcomings I tend to associate with them: lots of table setting, and tortured similes and metaphors that reek of an unconfident writer desperate to impress (which may be a symptom of Mottley struggling to make the transition from poetry to prose). Mottley’s work isn’t quite ready for primetime, but this is a promising start to what will hopefully be a stellar career.
Nightcrawling follows Kiara, a young Black woman living in Oakland, as she tries to bring in money while her brother nurtures unrealistic dreams of becoming a rap star. Kiara’s endeavors end up entangling her in sex work, and she eventually becomes embroiled her in a major scandal involving the Oakland Police Department. Kiara serves as a satisfying centerpiece for the book—she is practical, headstrong without being hard-headed, and her grounded approach to both the positives and negatives of life makes her a comfortable companion through some truly terrifying experiences. This is a bleak novel, but Mottley effectively showcases how difficult it is for marginalized and oppressed people (Black, female, impoverished, etc.) to extricate themselves from systems of power which have evolved to keep them that way, and how easy it is for things to escalate in the desperation to survive.
Unfortunately, it takes a long time for things to get going; the plot doesn’t take shape until roughly halfway through the book, and it is only in the final quarter that Mottley really gets to the meat of the story. Are Kiara’s literal and figurative meanderings through Oakland meant to communicate something to the reader? Are they a literary technique, meant to reinforce her lack of options, her inability to find work and purpose? Probably. But if that’s the payoff, I’m not sure it’s sufficient to outweigh the dreary pacing that gums up the first half of the novel. Trimming the early sections of the book and expanding the later sections, giving them more room to breathe, would have done wonders for the raw power of this story.
Mottley’s prose was also a bit of a mixed bag for me. Sometimes it is rich and evocative—exactly what I would expect from a poet—but sometimes she swings way too far, tying herself in knots to create an onslaught of similes and metaphors that do nothing to enhance the descriptions or the tone of the text (Ocean Vuong made the leap from poetry to prose much more elegantly in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and the memory of that superior novel was lingering in my mind as I read Nightcrawling). “Less is more,” as they say.
I liked Nightcrawling. It’s a good book. But it’s not a great book. I hope Mottley continues to polish her prose skills, because the promise and the potential of her work is on full display here, and I believe she could become an impressive novelist. I will follow her career with interest.
Review by Erin Larson