Published by Harper Collins Publishers on September 1, 2020
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Bantering Books Rating:
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…
Sydney Green is Brooklyn born and raised, but the neighborhood she loves is being erased before her very eyes. FOR SALE signs are popping up everywhere, and the neighbors she’s known all her life are disappearing. To preserve the past, Sydney channels her frustration into a walking tour: “Displaced: A People’s History of Brooklyn,” and finds an unlikely and unwanted assistant in one of the new arrivals to the block – her neighbor Theo.
But Sydney and Theo’s deep dive into history quickly becomes a dizzying descent into paranoia and fear. Their neighbors may not have moved to the suburbs after all, and the efforts to revitalize the community may be more deadly than advertised.
When does coincidence become conspiracy? Where do people go when gentrification pushes them out? Can Sydney and Theo trust each other – or themselves – long enough to find out, before they too disappear – permanently?
Bantering Books Review
I have never read a novel quite like Alyssa Cole’s, When No One is Watching.
Primarily marketed as a thriller, it has, for the most part, all the prerequisite tension, psychological suspense, and unexpected twists it needs to fit that bill. But alongside all that lies a fierce examination of institutional racism and gentrification in contemporary society. Not to mention a fascinating history lesson, to boot.
It sounds like a lot to try to pull together, doesn’t it? Most definitely. It takes a skilled, talented writer to effectively combine such diverse elements. Not every author could pull it off. But Cole does – and she does it without even breaking a sweat.
Sydney Green, a young Black woman in Brooklyn, watches in dismay as the neighborhood she grew up in disappears before her very eyes. New FOR SALE signs seem to be dropping out of the sky, as left and right, her beloved neighbors are forced to sell their homes. Some of her dearest friends are even silently vanishing in the middle of the night, never to be seen or heard from again.
To combat her burgeoning sense of loss, Sydney decides to funnel her frustration into the creation of a historical Brooklyn walking tour. She soon receives an offer of research assistance from her new White neighbor across the street, Theo, which she begrudgingly accepts against her better judgment.
Much to Sydney and Theo’s surprise, their straightforward exploration into the history of Brooklyn soon leads them to a frightening discovery they never saw coming. They have no choice but to work together, pushing all fear and distrust of one another aside. Otherwise, they may find themselves to be the next neighbors to disappear without a trace.
Having previously found success writing romance, When No One is Watching is Cole’s first foray into the land of thrillers. And what a successful venture it turns out to be. Overall, the novel is a smart, engrossing, addictive story with just the perfect amount of tension.
And Cole puts some serious writing chops on display. Her prose is excellent. It’s intelligent and direct; clear and concise. Her words flow smoothly and are effortless to read. And she doesn’t waste time by bloating the narrative with needless filler.
As is so popular these days, the novel employs the literary tool of dual narration, with the story unfolding through the eyes of both Sydney and Theo. The strategy works effectively, seeing as Cole has crafted two likable, but slightly unreliable protagonists. Sydney’s emotional and psychological stability is debatable, thanks to an ill mother and a recent divorce. And Theo is surrounded by a dark air of dishonesty, dubious motives, and hidden secrets. They are two remarkably interesting and complex characters, and their questionable behavior abundantly increases the novel’s underlying sense of disquiet.
Be forewarned, though. The majority of When No One is Watching is not very thrilling. It’s more suspenseful, in nature. It isn’t until the last 25% hits that the novel becomes what I would consider to be a true thriller. There is also a romantic element to the story, which I found to be a bit unnecessary.
Still, Cole creates a perfect aura of eeriness, paranoia, and unease, all of which serves to amplify the reader’s need to understand what exactly is happening and why. The pages fly by, and it is difficult to put the novel down.
But then the ending comes.
And in a matter of a few pages, my thoughts flip flop. One minute I’m thinking I have a five-star thriller in my hands. The next, I’m wondering what in the world is happening and if any of it is even supposed to be real. Because the novel completely goes off the rails, verging on the edge of ridiculous. The ending is just too unbelievable. It’s too far-fetched.
I understand that When No One is Watching is supposed to be a thriller and the intention is to be shocking. But for a novel that spends so much of its time being deeply rooted in fact and history, this type of sudden, extreme, and incongruous conclusion simply does not make sense. And I think that in the end, Cole unwittingly undercuts the powerful message she works so hard to send.
Sigh. My opinion may not be a popular one. Of this, I am mindful.
Nonetheless, my hat is still tipped to Cole. When No One is Watching is immensely enjoyable and gripping, even with the outrageous ending. It is expertly written. And it is in the running to be my favorite thriller of the year.
My sincerest thanks to Harper Collins Publishers and NetGalley for the Advance Review Copy in exchange for an honest review. All opinions included herein are my own.