Kate’s Review: “When No One is Watching”

Book: “When No One is Watching” by Alyssa Cole

Publishing Info: William Morrow Paperbacks, September 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The gentrification of a Brooklyn neighborhood takes on a sinister new meaning…

Sydney Green is Brooklyn born and raised, but her beloved neighborhood seems to change every time she blinks. Condos are sprouting like weeds, FOR SALE signs are popping up overnight, and the neighbors she’s known all her life are disappearing. To hold onto her community’s past and present, Sydney channels her frustration into a walking tour and finds an unlikely and unwanted assistant in one of the new arrivals to the block—her neighbor Theo.

But Sydney and Theo’s deep dive into history quickly becomes a dizzying descent into paranoia and fear. Their neighbors may not have moved to the suburbs after all, and the push to revitalize the community may be more deadly than advertised. When does coincidence become conspiracy? Where do people go when gentrification pushes them out? Can Sydney and Theo trust each other—or themselves—long enough to find out before they too disappear?

Review: While it doesn’t happen often these days, between chores, day to day commitments, and a rambunctious toddler to chase after, there is very little more satisfying, reading wise, than sitting down and reading a book in one go. Being able to consume a book in one sitting can leave my brain a little soupy, but overall I love feeling that engaged with a story, even if I rarely make it happen. When I sat down on a Friday evening with Alyssa Cole’s “When No One is Watching”, I figured I’d probably start it and make may way through it that weekend. What actually happened was that I didn’t put it down until I finished the very last page. So yeah, I guess you could say that this thriller really took me on a ride in all the best ways!

“When No One is Watching” is a suspenseful thriller that uses the genre to make an effective social commentary on the harm and damage that gentrification, corporate greed, and systemic racism has on minority communities, specifically the Black community in Brooklyn. While a lot of people have been comparing it to “Get Out”, I think that a more direct comparison is that of “Vampires vs The Bronx” (though not as funny, but that’s by design). We have two perspectives in this book: Sydney, who is a Black woman who has just moved back to her childhood home after leaving an abusive marriage, and Theo, who is a white man who has just moved into the neighborhood with his white girlfriend Kim (though their relationship is in shambles). Both of them serve their own purposes for the reader besides being two narrative roads. Sydney is experiencing the frustration, anger, and pain that comes with a gentrifying Brooklyn as white people move in, prices go up, and Black residents start to move out for other options (or are they? We’ll get to that). She is also an unreliable narrator as the story starts to have suspense moments, as her former husband was a gaslighting abuser, and now she has anxiety attacks and questions her sanity when seemingly outlandish things start happening. Theo, on the other hand, is the well meaning but clueless and ultimately complicit white guy who doesn’t see himself as a racist, but also has never had to think about what gentrification and White Supremacy do to Black communities, and his own role in those systems. He’s likable enough, and has many lessons to learn as he and Sydney are put together when he volunteers to do the research for her burgeoning Black History of Brooklyn walking tours. But he too has some things from his past that he’s trying to move past, and while Sydney is understandably easily frustrated with his cluelessness, he is also genuine in wanting to learn. Both voices worked well for me, and I was invested in both of them.

In terms of the plot, “When No One Was Watching” has a lot of slow burn build up which I personally liked. I like a steady creep of dread as a story goes on, and as more and more things that just aren’t right keep happening to Sydney, and Theo too, the more suspense I felt until I was ready to break from the tension. Since we have two perspectives, we have two different ways of seeing clues laid out, as well as having a third device of a continuing online conversation on a “Next Door”-like website. As more white businesses and people start to move in, Sydney’s neighbors, some of whom have been there for years, abruptly leave, with rumors of them moving on to other neighborhood after being outpriced, or needing a change of scenery. But the more the story goes on, the more reasons we find to believe that maybe that isn’t really the case. Because no matter how much Sydney doubts her senses, something is very not right. Admittedly, the pacing is a LITTLE stunted, as the slow burns turns into a VERY fast and action heavy finale that feels rushed. But overall, I highly enjoyed the mystery and the big reveal, no matter how bananas some of the reveals felt.

The strongest part of “When No One Is Watching”, however, is the stark social commentary on gentrification, capitalism, and systemic racism in housing in urban settings. White it’s true that this book takes it to conspiracy theory laden extremes, the heart of the problem is very real. Sydney and her Black neighbors have to deal with over-policing, as well as the entitlement of their new white neighbors who deal out micro-aggressions to flat out racist acts. Kim, Theo’s girlfriend, is the main antagonist in this case, as we see a litany of familiar actions from her. Be it complaining about noise, to threatening to call the police on her Black neighbors for any little thing, to using not so coded language when talking about them, she is racist white womanhood at its worst. But we also get to see systemic predatory behavior of real estate companies, to the disparities in healthcare, to the historical racism of Brooklyn in all forms. This book is very much about the dangers of White Supremacy, and as satire it’s biting as well as educational for those who may need to become familiar.

I quite enjoyed “While No One Is Watching”. Fiction can teach readers about very real issues, and this one does that as well as being genuinely thrilling.

Rating 8: The twists and turns are well done and the main characters are likable. The ending is a little bananas, but overall “When No One Is Watching” is a fun, suspenseful read with some good satire and social commentary.

Reader’s Advisory:

“When No One is Watching” is included on the Goodreads lists “Tales of New York City (fiction and nonfiction)”, and “Horror/Thriller Books by Black Authors”.

Find “When No One is Watching” at your library using WorldCat, or or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

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