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Tracy Sierra gets right down to business in her debut thriller. "There was someone in the house" is the very first sentence. The unnamed narrator, alone in the house with her two children, acts almost as if she's prepared for this moment --- and perhaps, during her bouts of insomnia, she has. The historic New England farmhouse in the middle of nowhere has all kinds of quirks and secrets. Some, like the drafts and creaky floorboards, are annoying. Others, like the secret compartment hidden behind her husband's office, are about to become extremely useful.

"...a skillfully written, stunningly frightening thriller.... This is the kind of novel to open at the start of a stormy weekend, when you don't really need (or want) to go anywhere."

As if by instinct, the woman leads the two kids there, where the three of them alternate between being scared, uncomfortable and sleepy. A blizzard rages outside, and it's the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The woman is a freelance illustrator, and the children are doing remote school, which is about to break for the winter holidays. So if they disappear, no one will come looking for them for days, if not weeks.

The stranger in the house starts talking to them. He knows they’re somewhere but can't figure out where. He claims to be looking for their safe, but the woman knows better. She can't put a finger on it, but she feels like she knows him. And if he is who she thinks he is, her whole family, especially her daughter, must not be discovered.

NIGHTWATCHING is a skillfully written, stunningly frightening thriller. Sierra (who lives in a historic New England farmhouse herself) manages to capitalize on many of our most fundamental fears. Her protagonist, who is isolated, realizes at one point that she only has bothered to learn the name of one neighbor since moving to the area. She's utterly responsible for the safety of her children, but she’s unsure if it's better to stay with them or strike out on her own to find help. Eventually, she becomes worried that her kids will be kept from her, that no one will believe the terrifying reality she knows she has witnessed.

The book is about resilience from multiple traumas and having the courage of one's convictions despite being gaslit and underestimated. It's about having the fierceness to protect one's family even when one's own resources have been almost entirely depleted. And it's about the extremes to which people can go when needed, even when such lengths feel impossible. This is the kind of novel to open at the start of a stormy weekend, when you don't really need (or want) to go anywhere. You can cuddle up on the couch and prepare to be terrified. Just don't forget to lock the door.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on February 9, 2024

by Tracy Sierra