- What: When No One is Watching
- Who: Alyssa Cole
- Pages: 352 pages
- Genre: Thriller
- Published: 2020
- The lit: of 5 flames
When I first moved from Missouri to the northeast, I lived “right on the edge of Prospect Heights and Crown Heights” in Brooklyn, as I would tell people. If you look at a map, my first apartment lies not even a half a block from the imaginary line separating the two neighborhoods, so it makes sense that I would describe my apartment’s location that way, but if I’m honest, there was another reason why I felt the need to define my address.
I knew very little about Brooklyn when I moved here, so I didn’t know which neighborhoods were “bad” versus “good.” It didn’t take long, though, to figure out what those two adjectives actually meant. I also learned quickly that Crown Heights had a reputation for getting “worse” the further into the neighborhood you went — i.e., the further away from Prospect Heights, which was a very wealthy and a very white neighborhood. So even though geography was on my side, so was my racism when I told people I lived on the edge of those two neighborhoods. I’m ashamed to say it, and books like When No One is Watching reflect that attitude directly in my face.
This thriller written by a Black woman, who we do not see promoted enough in this genre, may seem like an extreme version of gentrification, but with the rate Black people get displaced in the cities white people originally fled, it’s not far off. Gentrification benefitted me by giving me a sense of safety — which was of course steeped in the racist lies others told me and that I told myself. So I did a lot of self-reflection while reading this one — as well as trying to calm my nerves, which were extremely frayed by the end.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Sydney Green is devastated when her neighborhood seems to transform before her eyes. The beautiful brownstones that her Black neighbors worked so hard to buy are now occupied by white people looking to get in on the market before it really gets hot. Her favorite businesses, which have always been at the heart of the community, are also closing at a rapid pace. And oddly enough, many of these people are leaving without even a goodbye.
Her new neighbors are anything but accepting of their new neighborhood and aren’t willing to involve themselves in the community that’s kept it going for so many decades. The unwelcome changes along with these unpleasant and racist white people irritate Sydney so much she decides to start a walking tour to preserve the neighborhood’s history — rather than allow only whitewashed versions to exist. As she begins work on the tour, she finds an unlikely assistant in her newest neighbor, a rather attractive white dude named Theo who has the bitchiest girlfriend on the face of the planet.
As Sydney and Theo dive deeper into the history, they start connecting too many dots that make them wonder if their neighbors actually left of their own accord. Paranoia and anxiety reach a breaking point just as Sydney’s trust in Theo does, causing her to wonder if anyone can truly help her or her neighborhood escape this potentially deadly gentrification.
Although this book is classified as a thriller, it really doesn’t start to feel like a psychological thriller until the last 100 pages or so. That’s not a critique, and that doesn’t mean the book doesn’t make your heart race like others in the genre. Author Alyssa Cole just gives you a different kind of anxiety in the first half.
Sydney herself suffers from anxiety, and of course that is amplified by what’s happening around her. You feel on edge of your seat before the true fucked-up-ness of this novel really presents itself because of everything Sydney’s experienced and feels in her personal life. From her constant scratching because of a bed bug incident to her extreme insomnia, you too feel like your world is closing in on you. These feelings create an even more profound instance then when Sydney starts questioning her own sanity. To top it off, the last 100 pages are so intense and scary that you will jump at every little noise you hear, and your heart will be racing.
“In this [book], it was fun to be able to lean into things that would make the reader feel anxious, because I was anxious in writing it,” Cole told the New York Times.
And, boy, did I feel anxious. Drawing out any emotion in your readers signals solid writing. Drawing out physical reactions signals something more profound and exceptional. Sure, sometimes I thought the writing was a bit cheesy and the dialogue not totally accurate during high-pressure situations, but I experienced a strong reaction nonetheless, and that outweighs that negative quality.
But the most exceptional part of When No One is Watching stems from the social commentary this book provides. Gentrification has existed in New York for years, but so many people — myself included — pretend that’s just a sign of the times and something that happens as cities expand. Theo represents these ignorant mindsets, and even though he’s generally a good guy, he lacks an understanding of Black communities. He also doesn’t understand how his own actions affect marginalized groups even if he’s not intentionally trying to hurt them like his girlfriend is. The book switches between Theo’s perspective and Sydney’s, and this contrast augments his ignorance, causing some much-needed self-reflection if you’re a white reader.
“He sees himself on some level, as far as race goes, as not racist and wouldn’t be friends with racists, but also doesn’t really see Black people or Black communities or think outside his preconceived notions,” Cole continued in the interview. “I wanted to show him having that realization that he has not been paying attention this entire time, even though he thought he was.”
This novel put a mirror up to my own face and forced me to see my own ignorance, and it gave me intense anxiety. I’m not kidding when I say I couldn’t read this book before bed. The night before I finished, I closed the book with only 25 pages left because I knew if I read anymore, nightmares would abound. Cole generally writes romance novels, which I’ll have to explore. If this is what she can do with her first thriller, I’d say she’s successfully cemented herself in a new genre and can’t wait to see what else she produces in it.