Highlights in the Charts
Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley
Review by Natalie Beckett
Nightcrawling begins and ends with a dirty swimming pool in a run-down apartment complex in Oakland, California. Mottley effectively uses the pool to literally plunge us into the mesmerising and tragic world of Kiara Johnson, making it immediately evident why she is the youngest ever Booker-longlisted writer.
At seventeen, Kiara is doing her best to survive in a world systematically built against her. Her brother, Marcus, is distracted by naive dreams of becoming a musician like their Uncle Ty; her father has died and her mother is in a halfway house. A high school dropout with no job prospects, Kiara turns to the streets to support Marcus and their neighbour’s son, Trevor, whose mother is a drug addict. When she is coerced into the back of a police car, the agonising reality of the dark adult world turns out to be more brutal and corrupt than she could have ever imagined.
Nightcrawling was inspired by an infamous 2015 case, involving members of the Oakland Police Department who participated in the sexual exploitation of young women of colour. In an interview with The Booker Prizes, Mottley admits she had felt the headlines surrounding the scandal were “narrow and often misdirected attention away from the system pattern of harm to girls and women of colour.” Through Kiara, Mottley gives the young victims of the scandal a voice that would otherwise remain unheard. It is a powerful reminder of the violence Black women face every day, whose stories are rarely told.
Despite being a minor who has been exploited at the hands of men with power, Mottley manages to convey Kiara’s ingrained feeling of shame for succumbing to prostitution. As she walks up to give testimony against the police, Kiara admits she feels like the defendant of a terrible crime. Her feelings are exacerbated by those closest to her. Her brother abandons her and her Uncle is all too quick to tell her that her father would be disappointed. Even her best friend Ale is unable to look at Kiara for what she has done. Mottley questions their judgement and compassionately shows how in some cases, alternative paths are often so unclear they may as well be non-existent.
Despite her unimaginably cruel and unjust circumstances, part of Kiara’s heroism is displayed in the small joys she continues to find in the world around her. She makes pancakes and plays basketball with Trevor; she falls in love with her best friend Ale and finds a way to forget her worries by diving beneath the pool water. It is in the balance of the light with the dark and the descriptions of these small joyful moments that Mottley’s prowess as a writer shines through.
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
Review by Halimah Haque
"I never realised how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.” - Octavia E. Butler, Kindred.
Kindred follows the protagonist Dana, a Black woman, after her life is turned upside down when she's transported back in time to a Maryland plantation in 1815. An aspiring writer in 1970s America, Dana struggles with her identity and beliefs as she's repeatedly summoned by Rufus, a white boy from her family's past, forcing her to confront the horrors that her ancestors were subjected to just decades before.
I finished Kindred within two sittings and was amazed by Butler's ability to effortlessly transport her readers through different time periods. It's harrowing to see that this novel is as relevant today as it was during the 1970s, illustrating the racial tension and discrimination that continues to prevail in our communities.
Through the graphic depiction of slavery, Butler clearly highlights the horror that slavery was. Readers are shown slave life from the perspective of a “free” time-travelling Black woman, compelling them to constantly draw comparisons with modern day life and Dana’s encounters. This makes the transition to the early 1800s all the more stark and distressing.
Butler’s use of simplistic language allows readers to focus more on the important topics being discussed. Butler highlights the power dynamic that existed between a slave and their white master, as well as the guilt and trauma that often accompanies these experiences.
Above all, I loved the depth of the characters and complexity of their relationships. Dana’s relationship with her white husband, Kevin, is truly put to the test, which is utilised to highlight the contrasting experiences Black and white people have of the world. While Kevin fights for his wife and other slaves, he often dominates Dana and fails to understand the trauma she experiences whilst at the plantation.
On the other hand, Dana and Rufus' mentor/mentee relationship was interesting to read, despite its unfortunate, yet inevitable end. Although her hope to transform Rufus for the better was wishful, it highlighted Dana's innocence and the immense impact environmental and societal influences have on individuals.
Kindred is an insightful and thought-provoking read, where time travel is skilfully used as a mechanism to illustrate the long-term effects of slavery and the discrimination many Black people are still subjected to in the twenty-first century.