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Reviews of Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley

Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley


A novel

by Leila Mottley
  • Critics' Opinion:
  • Readers' Opinion:
  • First Published:
  • Jun 7, 2022
  • Paperback:
  • Apr 2023
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About This Book

Book Summary

A dazzling novel about a young black woman who walks the streets of Oakland and stumbles headlong into the failure of its justice system - the debut of a blazingly original voice that "bursts at the seams of every page and swallows you whole" (Tommy Orange, bestselling author of There There).

Kiara and her brother, Marcus, are barely scraping by in a squalid East Oakland apartment complex optimistically called the Regal-Hi. Both have dropped out of high school, their family fractured by death and prison. But while Marcus clings to his dream of rap stardom, Kiara hunts for work to pay their rent—which has more than doubled—and to keep the nine-year-old boy next door, abandoned by his mother, safe and fed.

One night, what begins as a drunken misunderstanding with a stranger turns into the job Kiara never imagined wanting but now desperately needs: nightcrawling. And her world breaks open even further when her name surfaces in an investigation that exposes her as a key witness in a massive scandal within the Oakland Police Department.

Full of edge, raw beauty, electrifying intensity, and piercing vulnerability, Nightcrawling marks the stunning arrival of a voice unlike any we have heard before.


The swimming pool is filled with dog shit and Dee's laughter mocks us at dawn. I've been telling her all week that she's looking like the crackhead she is, laughing at the same joke like it's gonna change. Dee didn't seem to mind that her boyfriend left her, didn't even seem to care when he showed up poolside after making his rounds to every dumpster in the neighborhood last Tuesday, finding feces wrapped up in plastic bags. We heard the splashes at three a.m., followed by his shouts about Dee's unfaithful ass. But mostly we heard Dee's cackles, reminding us how hard it is to sleep when you can't distinguish your own footsteps from your neighbor's.

None of us have ever set foot in the pool for as long as I've been here; maybe because Vernon, the landlord, has never once cleaned it, but mostly because nobody ever taught none of us how to delight in the water, how to swim without gasping for breath, how to love our hair when it is matted and chlorine--soaked. The ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. A recurring element in Nightcrawling is the imagery of water, from the swimming pool in Kiara's apartment complex to the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. What do these bodies of water represent to Kiara and how do they manifest themselves in her emotional state throughout the text? Returning to the first and last pages of the novel, how does Kiara's perception of the pool change?
  2. Which images of Oakland stand out to you most? How do development and underdevelopment contrast each other within the city? Could your own hometown be described in this way?
  3. In the absence of parental figures, Kiara must piece together her own family, reflecting, "Mama used to tell me that blood is everything, but I think we're all out here unlearning that ...
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BookBrowse Review


Kiara's interior monologue is shot through with the dreamy, poetic sensibility of a young person who comes to see the world as it really is, but nevertheless has not lost hope. She sees the people she meets stripped of the fanfare of how they present themselves to the world. Camila, a sex worker who acts as a mentor to Kiara, appears to be a model of poised self-confidence, but Kiara comes to recognize how this is an act Camila performs to feel more in control. Kiara also comes to understand her own needs more fully — "And I am still waiting to be hit by some universe-halting love that will turn me inside out and remove all the rotting parts of me" — and that expressing and pursuing those needs in the face of systemic abuse is a radical act. Nightcrawling has deeply perceptive commentary on gender, race and class that defies the comfortable assumptions readers might bring to a story like Kiara's...continued

Full Review (927 words)

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(Reviewed by Lisa Butts).

Media Reviews

Washington Post
In these opening pages, Mottley effectively outlines the perilous economy of poverty in America. It's a dramatic accounting that gives tangible form to what millions of invisible people endure amid so much bounty...My god — that voice. It's sometimes too painful to keep reading, but always too urgent to stop. In page after page, you can hear Mottley's precocious work as a poet...She's already perfected the delicate task of infusing these observations with a kind of raw poetry without doing violence to the natural cadence of her narrator's speech.

New York Times
Mottley writes with a lyrical abandon that reminds us she was once Oakland's youth poet laureate. Some similes land better than others. A confusingly underdeveloped romance between Kiara and her best friend, Alé, who "moves kinda like the Hulk" and mesmerizes Kiara by rolling a joint, feels unearned when it finally comes to fruition. But beneath this gratuitous embroidery, there's a desperation — a reaching, through language, for some kind of salvation — a counterpoint to the carelessness with which the protagonist wields her body.

The Guardian (UK)
Nightcrawling marks the dazzling arrival of a young writer with a voice and vision you won't easily get out of your head...When asked how to write in a world dominated by a white culture, Toni Morrison once responded: 'By trying to alter language, simply to free it up, not to repress or confine it...Tease it. Blast its racist straitjacket.' At a time when structural imbalances of capital, heath, gender, and race deepen divides, the young American Leila Mottley's debut novel is a searing testament to the liberated spirit and explosive ingenuity of such storytelling.

Booklist (starred review)
Stunning...Kiara is an unforgettable dynamo, and her story brings critical human depth to conversations about police sexual violence.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Lush, immersive...It's Kiara's intense, anguished interiority rendered in lovely and poetic exposition that drives this evocation of an underclass and the disposable women just trying to survive...The acute observations are more remarkable still considering the author is herself a promising Oakland teen.

Library Journal (starred review)
Undeniably bleak but littered with small beauties and a powerful discourse on the dehumanizing effects policing can have on marginalized communities, bodies, and minds (and especially on Black women). Mottley's novel understands that sometimes a happy ending just means surviving.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[A] bold and beautiful account of two Black siblings striving to thrive and survive...Scenes of realism are rendered with a poet's eye...This heartrending story makes for a powerful testament to a Black woman's resilience.

Author Blurb James McBride, author of Deacon King Kong
Leila Mottley has an extraordinary gift. She writes with the humility and sparkle of a child, but with the skill and deft touch of a wizened, seasoned storyteller.

Author Blurb Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy
There is a compelling argument to make that Nightcrawling is the most compelling book written by an American teenager in my lifetime. Somehow, even that feels too brittle for the way Leila Mottley pulls us through a body, a city and a nation equally consumed with crawling toward liberation and jogging toward inequitable failure. Nightcrawling is a scorching, incredibly readable book that takes seriously the task of readerly provocation on every page. Get ready. Or don't. It doesn't matter. Leila Mottley is here.

Author Blurb Tommy Orange, author of There There
The writing in Leila Mottley's Nightcrawling erupts and flows like lava, makes hot bright an Oakland that runs the city's uncontrollable brilliance, its destructive and generative veins the same, Mottley's energetic writing here too, bursts at the seams of every page, pushing you deeper into a story you can't help but continue swallowing, stay thirsty for, while it swallows you whole.

Reader Reviews


A new raw talent is here
It is very clear why this striking book is piquing the interest of 2022 award winners already. A very unique written voice, author Leila Mottley brings this story to life through the eyes of seventeen year old Kiara Johnson. A girl who had to own ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Oakland Police Department Trafficks a Teenager

As she explains in her Author's Note, Leila Mottley based Nightcrawling loosely on real events involving a teenage sex worker who was sexually exploited for months by members of the Oakland Police Department. The girl is known as Celeste Guap in court documents. According to her, she began "dating" Officer Brendan O'Brien in February of 2015, when she was 17, after running to him for help on East Oakland's International Boulevard when she was being threatened by a pimp.

Her relationship with Officer O'Brien led to Guap having sex with multiple other members of the Oakland Police Department, as well as officers from other jurisdictions, often in exchange for information about prostitution stings. As the East Bay Express (who broke many ...

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