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Oprah’s latest book club pick: ‘Nightcrawling,’ by Leila Mottley

(Hailey Haymond/Washington Post illustration)

Leila Mottley is living the dream.

Last week, the 19-year-old author released her debut novel, “Nightcrawling,” with the prestigious publisher Alfred A. Knopf.

And Oprah picked it for her book club, essentially guaranteeing the novel bestseller status.

Such instant success at such an early age — youngest Oprah pick ever! — can create a distortion field of exaggerated expectations, but in this case, “Nightcrawling” really is a powerful, poignant story worth your attention. Despite all of Mottley’s good fortune, she demonstrates an extraordinary degree of sympathy with people who have none.

What’s even more remarkable is that “Nightcrawling” isn’t one of those thinly disguised diaries we’ve come to expect from precocious young novelists who can’t think of anything else to write about except their own heartache. Mottley explains in an author’s note that she was inspired by a scandal that broke in Oakland, Calif., while she was a high-schooler there: In 2015, a police officer’s suicide note launched an investigation into the sexual exploitation of a young woman involving several police departments in the Bay Area.

Using the general outlines of that case, Mottley has imagined the life of a 17-year-old African American high school dropout named Kiara Johnson. As the story begins, Kiara’s life is already shattered. Her charismatic father died after being released from prison. Her mother is recovering in the Blooming Hope Halfway House. Despite a pile of bills and a pending eviction notice, Kiara’s brother lounges around with his friends dreaming of becoming a rap star. “Give me one month to drop the album,” he tells Kiara. “You can handle one month, yeah?”

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Mottley wastes no time with subtlety. She’s describing people whose lives are a series of shocks and humiliations that arrive with such regularity that they’ve become routine. The swimming pool in the center of Kiara’s apartment complex is filled with brackish water and dog excrement. Although she can’t swim, the thought of floating freely feels strangely attractive. “The idea of drowning doesn’t bother me,” she notes, “since we’re made of water anyway. It’s kind of like your body overflowing with itself.” Meanwhile, she’s so hungry and so short on cash that she regularly crashes the Joy Funeral Home to steal clothing and food. “This is funeral day,” she explains, “touching death and eating lunch.” More than petty acts of theft, these regular visits to the funeral home are “the culmination of all our past selves, when we hold our own memorials for people we never buried right.”

With everything else in Kiara’s life, she’s also caring for a sweet 9-year-old boy whose drug-addicted mother has abandoned him in a nearby apartment. “I was determined,” Kiara says, “not to let nobody toss him away.” That involves somehow getting him to and from school and keeping him safe, fed and under the radar of Child Protective Services. “Some days,” she confesses, “it feels like I’m stuck between mother and child. Some days it feels like I’m nowhere.”

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. Kiara’s fragile network of friends and relatives is constantly threatened by low wages, substandard education, food insecurity, substance abuse, unreliable health care, inadequate housing and a dozen other systemic challenges conspiring to tip her into homelessness.

Nobody, she thinks, seems to realize “how close I am to falling apart.” But Mottley isn’t telling a story about a young woman who falls apart. Indeed, Kiara’s unwavering sense of responsibility is what keeps her together — and what eventually makes her vulnerable to unspeakable abuse.

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The novel’s crucial and most deftly handled scene comes early when Mottley first explores the slippery continuum between rape and prostitution. One night as Kiara leaves a club, a White stranger catches up with her and says, “Look, it’s late and I don’t want to have to pretend we aren’t here for the same thing.”

“I don’t know what he’s referring to,” Kiara thinks, “and I don’t have enough energy to try to figure it out.” The degrading transaction that follows is all the more horrific for how closely it records her confusion, shock and pain — which soon give way to a grotesque realization: “I’ve had sex now and I can do it again, nothing more than a body,” Kiara tells herself. “Skin. I don’t gotta make it more than that. Just till I get us out of our rent debt.”

Kiara imagines that she’s making a rational economic choice in a difficult situation, but as the plot accelerates toward further disasters, Mottley demonstrates what an inherently exploitative market Kiara and other young women have been pressed into. The corrupt policemen who make up the network of her sex clients are, in fact, more dangerous than ordinary johns in that they’re part of a sophisticated conspiracy determined to keep their abuse secret. “Ain’t this everything they said it would be,” Kiara thinks while another cop abuses her, “and ain’t I so sad to be familiar. Ain’t this just another night. So many ways to walk a street and I am still just a girl with skin.”

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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, first recognized by the Oakland Public Library that named her Oakland’s youth poet laureate in 2018. 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.

Mottley never drifts from Kiara’s point of view and never uses her as a mere device to retell the criminal story of what happened in Oakland. After all, that was already well covered by journalists. Instead, as the scandal breaks around Kiara with all its legal complications and criminal threats, the novel stays focused on the young woman’s concern for the people she loves, and that tight perspective proves surprisingly revelatory about the way our justice system re-traumatizes victims of sexual violence.

“These streets open us up,” Kiara says, “and remove the part of us most worth keeping: the child left in us.”

Mottley, just a few years from childhood herself, has managed to preserve that imperiled spirit in this harrowing novel.

Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.

Nightcrawling

By Leila Mottley

Knopf. 288 pp. $28

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