Release date: September 1, 2020
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ (10/10)
SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: When No One is Watching is a contemporary fiction/thriller novel written by Alyssa Cole and set for publication September 1, 2020. This novel is being published by HarperCollins Publishers by their William Morrow Paperbacks division. Cole has won multiple awards and accolades for her works, including historical, contemporary, and sci-fi romance novels. The tagline for this novel reads, “Rear Window meets Get Out in this gripping thriller from a critically acclaimed and New York Times Notable author, in which the gentrification of a Brooklyn neighborhood takes on a sinister new meaning…”
PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Sydney Green has returned home to the Brooklyn neighborhood she’s spent her entire life in, save those few years she doesn’t want to think about in Seattle. She’s left her ex-husband there, with his controlling ways and abusive tendencies, and she’s settled into her new role as caretaker for her ailing mother. She’s even started a new project of her own: a “real” history tour, one focusing on the contributions of people of color in her historically black neighborhood, in response to the white-washed tour of homes she recently took.
But time passes, and her mother declines, and Sydney finds herself aimlessly wandering through the area she’s known so well for years. Her neighbors’ names, their children, their habits, their jobs – these are all things that have imprinted on her very being, and made her an integral part of the Gifford Place family. But an ominous pall has settled over the street, and things are changing rapidly and alarmingly. Neighbors aren’t just selling their homes; they’re vanishing completely, and without telling anyone where they’re going. Entire storefronts disappear overnight, to be replaced with generic cafes and organic sandwich shops. New, lighter-skinned residents are incredibly quick to pick a fight with their older neighbors and call the authorities – men in uniform who never seem to pick the side of the “angry” black residents who are being targeted.
Cole has been receiving industry buzz for this novel in recent weeks, including a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly – and let me just say that I, like these reviewers, was absolutely blown away by this novel.”
Sydney knows the often-buried history of her neighborhood, and New York and America writ large; she’s no stranger to the cultural death toll that gentrification takes, or how it remakes entire neighborhoods and wipes out generations of minorities in the blink of an eye. But her gut is telling her that all of these mysterious happenings, and the sudden presence of threatening individuals and police patrols, are no coincidence, and that something more sinister is actually happening.
Together with Theo – her new white neighbor from across the street, who has his own dark secrets to contend with – she digs into the truth behind the new pharmaceutical company that’s moving into the neighborhood and causing these sweeping changes. Can she trust Theo with her own terrible truth, and if so, can they work together to find out the truth behind the implosion of Gifford Place? And even if they find the answers they’re looking for…can they stop it?
MY THOUGHTS: Cole has been receiving industry buzz for this novel in recent weeks, including a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly – and let me just say that I, like these reviewers, was absolutely blown away by this novel. Her previous works in the sci-fi romance and historical genres have passed me by, but I for one am so grateful this book found its way into my hands this year.
I finished this book in less than 24 hours – in fact, it’s safe to say I actually DEVOURED it. (With two young attention-seeking kids, and multiple loads of laundry and dishes to do for the upcoming school week, natch.) The story flips back and forth between the perspectives of Sydney – the protagonist who’s watching the Brooklyn neighborhood of her youth fall prey to a greedy and malevolent gentrification – and Theo, her new (white) neighbor across the street with secrets of his own. It’s gritty, it’s realistic, and it’s enthralling.
Cole skillfully – and seemingly effortlessly – weaves together threads of contemporary fiction, the darkest parts of American history, and the creeping dread that something terrible is happening and cannot be stopped. And if you are an empath, or if books actually physically affect you – by leaving you feeling overwhelmed, claustrophobic, or irritated when the characters are in seemingly no-win situations – then you will FEEL that dread. You will feel it in your bones, and you might want to stop turning the pages…but you can’t.
Cole knows that this level of unease and discomfort is necessary to accurately portray what Sydney is going through. The atrocities perpetuated throughout history – our own American history, on our own land, by people we’ve deemed heroes instead of monsters – SHOULD indeed make us feel uncomfortable. And in achingly realistic scenes that mirror headlines today, we see militaristic policemen arresting young black men with no reason, and patrolling a peaceful neighborhood multiple times a day to maintain a semblance of power. There’s also a rage-inducing scene depicting a belligerent, rich white man taking over a piece of land with both a fake deed and the full support of the corrupt local police department. The officers threaten the “angry black” person – who actually has true legal ownership of the land – with arrest for refusing to leave. “The police came for [him]. The knowledge that it can happen just like that, that they can show up and ruin your life, feels like an itch in the middle of my back that I can’t reach,” Sydney bemoans.
Cole skillfully – and seemingly effortlessly – weaves together threads of contemporary fiction, the darkest parts of American history, and the creeping dread that something terrible is happening and cannot be stopped.”
Cole wants us to know that just turning a blind eye to entire infrastructures and systems that perpetuate this racism is not acceptable, and it’s costing people everything even now, in 2020 – their homes, their hopes and dreams, even their lives. If it’s shocking to read some of the historical facts presented in this novel – including detailed and historically accurate information about how we turned the loss of slavery into a successful ongoing system of oppression and voter suppression – I think we really need to sit with it and ask ourselves why. (The same with the incredibly tense ending to this novel, and the depictions throughout the book of violence, murder, and bloodshed.) We’re meant to ask ourselves why we’ve been trained to see these things as okay in certain situations, but not in others.
And Cole does all of this with a literary magnificence and such beautiful prose that I really hesitate to label this book as a “thriller,” considering what usually passes in that genre. As Sydney’s neighborhood becomes more and more alien to her, she stares out at the bleak beacons of change, complete with cranes that have “the American flags attached to them flapping darkly in the wind, signaling that they came in peace when really they were here to destroy. To remake. … The landscape of my life is unrecognizable.” You can’t miss this metaphor.
Sydney learns, as we do while reading the book, that this travesty is nothing new. “People bury the parts of history they don’t like, pave it over like African cemeteries beneath Manhattan skyscrapers. Nothing stays buried in this city, though,” she muses. (Even – horrifyingly – the once-successful slavery theme park, “Black America.”) However, by the end – which is explosive, shocking, and yet satisfying after such a heavy journey – she learns that the power always belongs to those who band together to right the wrongs: “Bad things happen in this world, every minute of every day. We try to stop them, when we can, how we can. We try to look out for one another.”