Nightcrawling, Leila Mottley


June 2023

I desperately hope Leila Mottley has more stormers like this inside her. She’s an incredibly skilled writer; Nightcrawling reads as if she has one hand round her narrator’s throat and the other gently sheltering her heart throughout. It was published before she turned twenty, and she is so close to it that I hope she finds similarly rich material to submerge herself in for many novels to come. The odds are on her side, given this debut was nominated for the Booker Prize - the youngest author ever listed.

Mottley has said the story is loosely based on a news story she once read about a young girl who was mixed up in a police corruption case. We meet her protagonist, Keira, in a pitiful state, and Nightcrawling is as much a story about poverty and generational trauma in the San Francisco Bay Area as it is about Keira - Mottley has that rare but vital gift of making her tiny tale a tragic and eternal one.

Keira isn’t even 18 but very alone. Her mother’s in prison - we’re not sure why but it’s connected to the death of her toddler sister - and her brother Marcus is pursuing the music dream instead of earning to look after them. Keira’s also trying to care for the neighbour’s nine-year-old son, as his mother has disappeared too. Their father, after time in prison, is dead.

It’s not premeditated, but she finds herself accepting money for sex. She can’t escape, as almost immediately she meets a police officer who forces her to sleep with his friends and attend sordid sex parties, on the promise she’ll receive protection. But it turns out no one is looking out for her. There isn’t a family member who doesn’t have a history with the police. We feel that Keira is both essentially good, and wise to the dangers around her, but she doesn’t have any way to avoid them. She keeps on pushing for survival but comes up against a fate that seems foretold at every turn.

Mottley’s writing is mesmerising; poetic, enchanting, folkloric and thoroughly contemporary at once. I put off reading it for a while after finding it in the library, even though it had been on my radar since publication, because it sounded so relentlessly bleak. And, well, it is bleak, but the writing - and Keira - are also magnificent.

Read an extract here