Skip to main content

When No One Is Watching


When No One Is Watching

From bestselling romance writer Alyssa Cole comes WHEN NO ONE IS WATCHING, a timely and sinister thriller about gentrification and its deep ties to our history.

Sydney Green is Brooklyn born and raised, and after a brief and unhappy spell on the West Coast, she is back to stay. Her mother’s beloved brownstone still holds the smell of wood polish and a Coney Island ashtray, but other than that, the neighborhood of Gifford Place has started to change. Old Mr. Perkins still walks his dog every morning and leads the neighborhood on party planning and crisis aversion, but five Black families have moved away in less than a year and new neighbors are cropping up with alarming frequency. And as too many readers will find familiar, the newcomers are all white, affluent and bolstered by the age-old belief that they have found an “emerging” neighborhood that they alone can make new again. You know, despite the Black citizens who have called the neighborhood home for decades.

At the same time, Brooklyn natives are fighting against VerenTech, a corporation planning to make Gifford Place the home of their new campus. The addition to the community will ostensibly create hundreds of new jobs...but everyone knows it won’t be the locals who are employed. To add insult to injury, the company plans to lead the fight against opioid addiction through research and clinical testing, but again, those they aim to save are white people who “made one bad choice” and not the Black people who are deemed criminals and crackheads with the appearance of even one vape or dime bag.

" expertly crafted thriller that succeeds on almost every level. Cole manages to unpack centuries of American history in a way that is neither boring nor distracting, and somehow, at the same time, she weaves a sinister and horrifying novel that is terrifying in its familiarity."

This is the crossroads at which we meet Sydney, and yet these are not even the most personal issues plaguing her. Her elderly mother has fallen severely ill, and her mounting tax and medical bill debt has collectors calling Sydney at all hours. Her only comfort is her best friend Drea, and her nightly calls to her mother’s phone to listen to her voicemail.

And then there’s Theo, who has just moved into the brownstone across from Sydney with his Lululemon-wearing girlfriend, Kim. At first glance, Theo looks like every other white yuppie eager to buy into Sydney’s community and “improve” upon it, but he, too, has a secret: he is broke, jobless and comes from a seedy background that would have him thrown out of Kim’s home in a heartbeat if she ever suspected. But even without this knowledge, his relationship with Kim is souring, and her treatment of their new neighbors is doing nothing to help it.

Kim, who proudly hangs a portrait of Michelle Obama in their living room, has no trouble calling the cops when the local children get too loud playing outside, cuts lines at the bodega when she “doesn’t see” a Black customer, and is just a little too active on the local neighborhood watch message board. Though Theo is shocked by her behavior, as he believes himself to be one of “them” with his background of poverty and violence, he, too, is noticing that he has stereotyped and generalized his Black neighbors in smaller but no less harmful ways.

Sydney and Theo are brought together when he volunteers to help her conduct research for a new walking tour she is planning, one that will actually bring awareness to and celebrate the Black history of the neighborhood, and hopefully teach people about systemic racism at the same time, using real-world and local examples. As Kim’s racism becomes more blatant and shocking, Theo finds himself endlessly attracted to Sydney and her fearlessness in telling him when he is wrong and calling out his microaggressions, white guilt and plain foolishness. Before long, they are bonding more than ever over their research into Gifford Place. As more and more of their neighbors disappear, they unearth a shocking cycle of racism, violence and greed that is primed and posed to eliminate Gifford Place and everything Sydney holds dear.

WHEN NO ONE IS WATCHING is an expertly crafted thriller that succeeds on almost every level. Cole manages to unpack centuries of American history in a way that is neither boring nor distracting, and somehow, at the same time, she weaves a sinister and horrifying novel that is terrifying in its familiarity. She spaces out her reveals tremendously well, with one coincidence after another popping up to terrorize Sydney --- first slowly, and then building in frequency until even Sydney herself feels like a crazed conspiracy theorist. But her paranoia is rooted in something painfully real, and even as she questions herself, readers will see that there is a lot at play behind the scenes.

Though it should never fall on Black writers to educate and enlighten us, Cole takes on this task bravely and unapologetically, demanding that her white readers open their eyes to see how easily racism and greed can hide in plain sight, and how systems like gentrification, prisons and even banks have been stealing and benefiting from people of color for centuries. Even those who consider themselves aware and allied to the cause of Black empowerment will be made uncomfortable when reading WHEN NO ONE IS WATCHING, and that is truly a gift from Cole, who somehow manages to make you turn pages at lightning speed, even when you are sitting in your own feelings of discomfort and guilt. Combining the act of self-reflection with literal fear really drives her themes home and makes you think.

I have been a fan of Cole’s romance novels for some time, and I’ll admit that I was shocked to see that she had written a thriller. Though it was excellent and truly genre-defining for about 80% of the book, the last 20% fell apart for me, pacing-wise. She writes such credible characters and sets the scene so masterfully that it was disappointing to see the conclusion come so quickly and with so many questions left unresolved. WHEN NO ONE IS WATCHING is absolutely chilling, and though I did not expect Cole to answer every question, the otherwise magnificent plot felt deserving of so much more than a rushed ending.

That said, 80% of an informative and simultaneously hair-raising thriller is more than we often get from even the best suspense writers, and the ending is by no means a reason to skip this one.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on September 25, 2020

When No One Is Watching
by Alyssa Cole