'Nightcrawling' by Leila Mottley
This book was so difficult to finish. Not because the writing wasn't beautiful (it was), or the plot wasn't fast-paced enough (it was), nor because the characters weren't believable. It was more that it was all too believable in the way most of us probably wish it wasn't. And that's where the trouble is, isn't it? We would all prefer to live our lives hoping that young women like Kiara don't exist in the circumstances in which she exists--in that space between bad and worse choices, and just on the outskirts of places where other people live charmed lives.
As I read I found myself fighting against the narrative, arguing internally that Kiara could have made different choices at various points, choices that didn't lead her to a life on the streets. And then time after time I had to concede that the "better" choice simply wasn't easily available to her, or available at all. Through Kiara's story, Mottley painted a vivid picture of how the intersection of race and gender can operate to make Black women and girls especially endangered as a group. The fact that women are often disbelieved in cases of sexual violence; that Black people are often doubted when they are victims of crime; necessarily means that Black women are especially vulnerable to being discounted and disbelieved when they are subjected to crimes of sexual violence. That conclusion should be obvious, but it is skillfully driven home in this novel. Add to that, the fact that Black girls are often adultified, and have projected onto them the same capacity to exercise agency (usually to make poor choices) that adult women have. With all those ingredients, Kiara's story isn't just believable, it's a wonder it doesn't happen more often. Or, maybe it does and we just don't want to see it.
And finally, I loved the subtlety with which Mottley exposed her secondary theme, which is how Black girls and women have been conditioned to nurture and shield Black men even when some of those same men show no inclination to nurture and protect us; how, even in our own community, we glamorize and deify Black manhood, while often leaving Black women neglected and open to attack--from racism, misogyny and the structures that perpetuate those ills.
Some of the reviews I read complained about the trauma being too explicit. I actually couldn't disagree more. I found that the descriptions of the more difficult aspects of Kiara's experience were very sparing and not at all graphic. When we were told what was being done to her, the author focused mostly on how Kiara experiences those things emotionally, rather than the details of what was done physically. She hones in on how Kiara perceives those violating her, rather than the minutiae of the violation itself. I think that was an incredibly mature creative choice for a writer as young as Mottley was when she wrote this novel. She leaves room for us to imagine, giving us just enough information so we know that even our imaginations cannot encompass the scope of Kiara's degradation. Which leads me to the language ...
I gotta say. I did not at all understand the people who felt the prose was overwrought or melodramatic. Maybe because I know this was written by a spoken word poet, I expected and appreciated her use of language which seemed to me to sometimes be as much about how the words sound in their rhythm and cadence as about what they mean. While some writers create mood and images by choosing words that are descriptive, poets, it seems to me also choose words based on how they sound and feel on the tongue. At points I felt that that was what this author was doing. Ultimately I thought, this book was about the inner life of someone whose external existence is well outside of what most of us can imagine. And that, for me is the reason I read: to understand.
My rating: ⭑⭑⭑⭑⭑