I have been hearing about Alyssa Cole’s riveting novel When No One Is Watching non-stop since last spring… and I finally got my hands on a copy a few weeks ago. It was one of those books you forego important life necessities (washing dishes, making dinner, showering) in order to keep reading. A notable thing for me is that I felt the plot went completely off the rails at about the last quarter… and yet I went with it and loved the entire thing. This book was a wild ride of a thriller with deeply disturbing insights into the evils of gentrification and I cannot recommend it more.
Mini Plot Summary: Sydney, fresh off a breakup, has moved home to Brooklyn to care for her ailing mother. She’s lived in Brooklyn her entire life, but the neighborhood is transforming right before her eyes – stores closing overnight, beloved neighbors disappearing without a farewell, new people buying up empty houses and making life uncomfortable for the long-time residents. One of her new neighbors, Theo, turns into an unlikely ally as they delve into the history of the community, working together to create a local walking tour that highlights Brooklyn’s triumphs and exposes some of its unsettling secrets. Even as her friendship with Theo blooms, the neighborhood seems to seethe with some unseen force. Increasingly sleep deprived and paranoid, Sydney comes face to face with troubling questions: Is she being watched? What has really happened to their former neighbors? Why is Sydney’s best friend avoiding her? Is Theo the friend he claims to be?
What I Liked About This Book: I loved the historical tidbits that Cole feeds us throughout the book. We learn about Brooklyn’s troubled history – and the dark roots and effects of gentrification – right alongside Sydney and it was as fascinating as it was horrifying.
Sydney was a great character. I loved how deeply she loved her community and how dedicated she was to finding ways to help it flourish. I found her struggles with her mother’s hospital bills and her recovery from her divorce to be heartbreaking and relatable. And her distrust of Theo, even as she tried so hard to give him the benefit of the doubt, was so understandable and realistic.
The plot was a constant crescendo. The way that Cole dropped in little hints of what was going on that kept snowballing as the story progressed made it impossible for me to put the book down. It was a page-turner in the purest sense of the term.
What I Didn’t Like About This Book: At about the 75 or 80% mark, this book made a leap, for me, from realistic thriller to totally bananas. Alyssa Cole managed to make it work, much to my surprise, but it was a rocky few chapters for me to get on board. Especially, I think, because Sydney reacted in ways that seemed out of place with her character. In the end, I think Cole was trying to push her premise to levels of absurdity to make the point that things are so bad in real life, there’s really no circumstance you can rule out. And that there’s no choice but extreme action for those under attack. But it felt a little bit like there were two stories – one more true-to-life, one that was pure fiction.
Should You Read This Book? YES. Oh my goodness, this was advertised as a “gripping thriller” and it was certainly that. I did NOT see the ending coming. But it was also a very eye-opening and revealing look at the impacts – historical and contemporary – of gentrification on Black neighborhoods.