Nightcrawling was a punch in the gut. A punch in all the right ways - but a punch in the gut nonetheless. It’s dark, it’s grizzly, and it’s sad. It’s a really strong story, and a really strong book.
The story is told from the perspective of Kiara, growing up in Oakland, looking for ways to survive. Her story is that of hopelessness, in a pure sense of the word, and of trying to find ways to live another day while doing right by the few people that are left in her life.
This is a book with themes that essays can, should, and probably will be written on. The overarching theme for me was that of choices. It’s easy to criticize and judge someone’s bad choices, and file the situation they find themselves in as something that’s down to their own doing. And one can easily point to bad choices Kiara makes, as she does herself. However, how can choices be judged as bad when every single option available is a bad one? When one has the privilege of living a life where problems are relatively miniscule, and where almost all choices would lead to various flavours of good outcomes, it’s sobering to read a story - fictional, but believable - of what problems can look like when there isn’t an out. No possibility of a fairytale ending. Only making the best of it, and trying to live another day. The way in which Kiera gradually becomes numb to hope, and stops having much faith in any choice making anything better, is devastating. The way in which she’s mostly right to feel numb is even more devastating.
I was humbled by the way in which the book made me think “Do this, trust them, but how about…” followed by gently but systematically showing my why I was just wrong. My instincts, based on hope, a belief in the good in people, and a willingness and conditioning to think stuff like “surely this is the kind of thing that can be solved” just doesn’t apply in this real, fictional, world. There are also characters who represent me in the book. Well-intentioned, but not helpful. Their existence is so far removed from what Kiara is going through that their efforts - while not exactly misdirected - mostly amounts to giving them a feeling of having tried to help.
The way the story is told is impressive - Kiara is being exploited, but the book never feels exploitative or like the description of what happens to her goes further than it needs to. The character of Kiara never becomes pitiable: yes, she has flaws, but she’s also so much stronger than most of us could ever hope to be, and stronger than most of us would hope that we would ever need to be. And the way the character is so vulnerable, and so out of control of what’s happening to her, while also being so strong and so in control of herself and her own actions is an amazing piece of writing.
At its best, fiction can be an empathy-builder. It can give you an insight into the circumstances of people you otherwise wouldn’t find yourself thinking about. The next time I see a headline about grooming, cover-ups of police exploitation, or action taken against people on the street, I will see the headlines in a different way. This book will always be one of the books I’ve read that makes me see the world in a different way, and that’s up there with the highest compliment I can pay to a book.