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Booker Longlist: Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley

Book 6 – reviewed by panelists Book Worm, Nicole, Tracy, Lisa, and Susie.

Leila Mottley was born in 2003 in Oakland, California, where she still lives and works.

Synopsis from Booker Prize website:

At once agonising and mesmerising, Nightcrawling presents a haunting vision of marginalised young people navigating the darkest corners of an adult world.

‘When there is no choice, all you have left to do is walk.’

Determined to survive in a world that refuses to protect her, a 17-year-old girl finds herself walking the mean streets of Oakland after dark. When she is picked up by the police, the gruesome deal they offer in exchange for her freedom lands her at the centre of a media storm – and facing a terrible choice.

If she agrees to testify, she could help expose the corruption of a police department. But honesty comes at a price – one that could leave her family vulnerable to retaliation, and endanger everyone she loves.

This book has been getting glowing reviews but what did our panel think? Keep reading to find out.

Nicole’s Thoughts: It is impossible to ignore the author’s age when thinking about this book.  When I was in middle school (and obsessed with The Captain and Tennille) I started writing a novel about two talking muskrats who – you guessed it – fell in love.  To think that Mottley is just 6-years older than me when I wrote that, is mind blowing. For a 19-year-old author this novel is impressive and it’s a major achievement.

This book is also depressing and, for me, not in any way enjoyable.  It’s a fictional account based on a newsclip, which makes it even more depressing.  And look, I am all about the dark books, but when I finished this book I was elated to not have to read anymore. 

It’s not a book I would have picked up if not for Booker.  The thing is, I believe this book was nominated because of the author’s age, and the subject matter.  It is not a literary masterpiece.  The writing is juvenile (not “Muskrat Love” juvenile, but still – Creative Writing 101.)  Metaphor after metaphor.  Dear God, free me from these metaphors.  The editors should have done the author the favor of trimming those down. 

Because of the nomination this book has to live up to a higher standard, and for me it falls short.  That doesn’t take away from the absolute achievement of a writer of this age, but if we didn’t know her age, we’d all be scratching our heads at this book’s inclusion.  I’m such a huge proponent of diversity in all things, but I think in this case the judges were trying to be a little too “woke.”

Writing quality: 2/5
Originality: 3/5
Character development: 2/4
Plot development: 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 0/2
Total: 10/20

BookWorm’s Thoughts: This is the kind of book I totally expect the Booker judges to choice bleak, dark and with an ending that promises little hope for the future. That said this is loosely based upon a real case the author has taken a news article and imagined a life for the girl in that news article, how did she end up Nightcrawling and what is likely to happen once events inevitably unfold.

For a debut novel from a 19 year old writer this is powerful stuff. As a look at police corruption and the experience of a poor black family this is an excellent exploration. The problem is I just didn’t love it.

Writing quality: 3/5
Originality: 3/5
Character development: 2/4
Plot development: 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total: 12/20

Jen’s Thoughts: So, I feel rather guilty disliking this book. Perhaps if I had not been reading it with the longlist in mind, I would have rated it higher. There is no question that the author is a talented writer and undoubtedly she will go on to have a successful writer career. The subject matter is very bleak and as a reader there is no silver lining or much uplifting moments (not that I require this in my books) in the plot. My main issue was that I felt nothing as I was reading, and it left me feeling lukewarm when I finished it. This kind of story, one focused on issues of trauma and powerlessness, usually leave me emotionally impacted. Why didn’t this book have the same impact? I think the writing style threw me off. At times the dialogue read like I how would imagine this character would speak, but that was juxtaposed with overly flowery descriptive prose, jam-packed with metaphors and way too many adjectives. I also felt that the inner life of the protagonist who was dealing with so much neglect, trauma, and sense of powerlessness was poorly captured. I never really was able to get in her head and empathize with her beyond just an intellectual “that’s awful” sort of way. I read this on the heels of Strout’s Oh William which was so rich in character development that this one suffered in comparison. Is it an impressive debut novel for such a young author? Yes. Is it one of the top 13 English language novels published in the past year? No

Writing quality: 2.5/5
Originality: 3/5
Character development: 1.5/4
Plot development: 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 0/2 (sorry)
Total: 10/20

Tracy’s Thoughts: Wow, the woman who wrote this book was nineteen years old. It’s well written for someone so young. 

The story moves at a great pace, and the characters are memorable, and very fallible. This isn’t a fairy tale, and the language and setting show a grim, scary side of Oakland CA that may not be tourist-friendly. 

I liked how the author deftly handled so many topics: sex workers who couldn’t find a “real” job, crooked police, a social system that fails children, family, responsibility, and a justice system that fails minorities. 

However, there was a lot of purple prose- this is not just on the author- the editor should have been more strict. 

Writing quality: 3.5/5
Originality: 3.5/5
Character development: 3.5/4
Plot: 3/4
Enjoyment: 1.5/2
Total: 15/20

Susie’s review: I feel like I’m the only human on earth that was not enraptured by Nightcrawling. Yes, I am impressed that a 17-year-old penned this work, but no, I don’t think it is worthy of the most prestigious literary prize in the lands. She is a talent, there’s no doubt about that, and I am looking forward to what she has to write in the future, particularly once she has matured as a writer. In this case, I found the prose to be overdone. Kinda like a 17-year-old would do. She pulled every rabbit out of its hat with every. single. sentence. For me that led to a divide between the narrative and my emotions. I wasn’t able to connect. I found the second half to be rushed, as if she had a deadline and hadn’t quite thought about how to finish the story. I also found the characters to be one dimensional. Overall it was just ok for me and I would rather not see it on the shortlist.

Writing quality: 2/5
Originality: 2/5
Character development: 1/4
Plot development: 1/4
Overall enjoyment: .5/2
Total: 6.5/20

Lisa’s ratings: I was rooting for the main character, Kiara, and angry at all the people around her who did not take care of her, and angry really at the world for not taking care of her. That said, it was a book by a very young author, and it read as such. I think she may develop as an author. But in this book, there was nothing in the writing style that elevated it onto the level of the short list. And for me, style is the very core of what makes a book brilliant.

Writing quality: 3/5
Originality: 3/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot development:2/4
Overall enjoyment:2/2
Total: 13/20

The Colony 18.8

The Trees 16.4

Oh William 15.6

Small Things Like These 15.3

Booth 13.7

Night crawling 11.08

Have you read it? What do you think?

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. mike #

    The link to the post on Nightcrawling is broken. ________________________________


    August 18, 2022
  2. pbtanita #

    “My main issue was that I felt nothing as I was reading, and it left me feeling lukewarm when I finished it. This kind of story, one focused on issues of trauma and powerlessness, usually leave me emotionally impacted. Why didn’t this book have the same impact?”

    **THIS** This statement encapsulates exactly how I felt . . .just nothing.


    August 24, 2022
  3. Remedial Stitcher #

    Alrighty then. I think I’ll pass.


    August 25, 2022

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