Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 288 pages; 2022.
Seventeen-year-old Kiara ‘Kia’ Johnson is a character that will stay with me for a long time.
Her jailbird father is dead, her mother is in a halfway house and her older brother is unemployed and spends his days making music in a makeshift recording studio, thinking he’s going to hit the big time. There’s no one looking out for her, and yet she takes it upon herself to look after Trevor, a nine-year-old boy, who lives in the same decrepit apartment block, while his mother goes missing for days at a time.
Meanwhile, as the threat of eviction looms large, Kia must figure out a way to pay the rent for both her apartment and Trevor’s. The solution she stumbles upon is not pretty — and leads to a life-changing court case that puts her in the public eye.
Based on true events
Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley was inspired by a real-life scandal in which several police officers, from various police departments in the Oakland area of California, had “participated in the sexual exploitation of a young woman and attempted to cover it up”. (See this newspaper article published in the Guardian in 2016 to find out more.)
The story is told from Kia’s point of view in an engaging first-person narrative which showcases the character’s alarming naivety, her chutzpah and stoicism, her ingenuity and resilience, and her fierce independence.
She stumbles into sex work almost by accident when she gets drunk in a club and follows a white man out onto the street.
He cracks another smile, just like he did in the sweat of he club. “Look, it’s late and I don’t want to have to pretend we aren’t here for the same thing.”
He’s speaking, but the only thing that I can absorb is the way the wind keeps whipping his hair back. I don’t know what he’s referring to and I don’t have enough energy to figure it out.
“I know a spot,” he says.
“A spot?” My knees feel increasingly less reliable with the sloshing inside me.
From there, it’s a free fall into walking the seedy streets of Oakland, hooking up with strange men (usually in the back of their cars) and making enough money to keep a roof over her head.
But one evening she’s picked up by a cop — and things change, not in the way you might expect because instead of being arrested she becomes the Oakland Police Department’s go-to hooker of choice and is invited to sex parties at which she services dozens of men — and sometimes they don’t even pay her.
She cannot tell anyone what is happening because, first, she doesn’t really have anyone to tell, and second, because she’s living under threat that the police will arrest her brother, who has now turned to drug pushing to finance his pursuit of becoming a musician.
The police department’s horrendous exploitation of her only comes to light when one of the policemen commits suicide and names her in the note he left behind.
An audacious debut
As well as being an eye-opening account of the sexual misconduct of a morally corrupt police department, Nightcrawling is a bold and vivid portrait of the Black underclass in urban America.
It’s a depressing, oppressive portrayal and yet Kia’s boldness and persistence lend the story a sense of self-confidence, of cheeky resistance, of survival against the odds. I liked her forthright nature, her dogged determinism and her compassion and care for young Trevor who is in a worse situation than herself.
The book is a tale about power and corruption, but in giving a voice to the powerless it shines a light on truth, justice and racism in modern-day America. It’s an impressive and audacious debut.
Nightcrawling was longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize.