What’s new, readers? I have to say, it feels like we’re existing inside a videogame that’s being played by someone who’s going all-out and punching in every single cheat code. Not only are wildfires blazing across much of the West Coast, but the sky is red (though it was a sickly yellow here in Seattle for a time). Yes, red.Blade Runner red. Harbinger-of-a-demonic-army red. And what does Trump have to say about the fires? “It will start getting cooler. You just watch.” Sure, just like COVID disappeared once the weather got warmer. I suppose that’s why Scientific American is supporting Joe Biden in its first presidential endorsement.
All right, let’s start in on the book review proper. At the outset of When No One Is Watching, the unforgettably chilling psychological thriller by romance author Alyssa Cole (Reluctant Royals series), “History is fucking wild” gets declared by Sydney Green, a Black woman who recently moved from Seattle to the Black Brooklyn neighborhood of Gifford Place as it’s being gentrified. Such a sentiment definitely makes sense as she recounts reading about Black America, a theme park that takes a nostalgic attitude to slavery, a “faithfully recreated plantation” that launched toward the end of the 1800s in Brooklyn. When Sidney goes on a walking tour through Gifford Place to further educate herself on her childhood home, however, the white tour guide exclusively lays out the history of the “rich white people who’d lived there a hundred years ago” and gets peeved whenever Sydney interrupts to offer her own info about the Black people who live there now. This motivates Sydney to organize her own tour and hesitantly accept some research assistance from Theo, the white guy who just moved into the brownstone across from hers with his girlfriend. As the pair delve into the intricate racial heritage of Gifford Place and the mysterious operations of VerenTech (the Big Pharma corporation that wants to build their new headquarters in the area), they realize insidious forces are executing plans to solidify their grip on the community. As strange happenings surface and suspicion festers, can Sydney and Theo trust each other long enough to uncover the truth in a place where nothing can be taken at face value?
This is undisputedly an ingenious read. Speaking from the stance of someone who’s crazy for suspense thriller lit, the lack of diversity in this genre has always frustrated me. For the most part it’s white as sugar—Gone Girl, The Woman in the Window, Big Little Lies, The Guest List. So it’s fantastic to experience a book that shatters the mold by mercilessly and intelligently dissecting the intractable racist policies and malicious deceit on which gentrification, class warfare, and white supremacy converge. Cole keeps the pacing tight and infuses her story with an atmospheric paranoia that intensifies all the way up to the breathtaking climax. I wouldn’t necessarily say the plot leans hard into horror, but there are a few twists that will make even the bravest thriller buff’s spine prickle with terror. At the same time, none of the events feel over-the-top or heavy-handed. There were several points where I thought to myself, “Oh yeah, this shit is happening as we speak.”
When No One Is Watching is being promoted as “Rear Window meets Get Out,” which is a very apt description. After all, you’ve got Theo staying in the attic—his girlfriend pretty much dumped him right after they moved in—and spying on his neighbors James Stewart-style, which leads to him witnessing a crime at one point. Or maybe he imagined things. The mistrust and doubt looming over Gifford Place and the unreliability of both Sydney and Theo as narrators add even more Hitchcockian touches to the plot. As for the Get Out comp, well, I think that’s self-explanatory.
Cole succeeds at weaving romance into the narrative, making the development of Sydney and Theo’s relationship feel believable. Of course, she has written numerous romances, a few of which take place in New York. It’s easy to latch onto the story because Sydney is such a relatable protagonist. Coping with the stress of looking after her ill mom while also struggling to rebuild her life after her divorce from a husband who repeatedly gaslit her, Sydney already has enough on her plate before the gentrification business arises. There’s a sincere and poignant quality about the self-doubt, anxiety, and enervation she undergoes as she questions the nature of everything she thought she knew and tries to protect herself by forming walls around her emotions. This is where the brooding and lonely Theo comes in. He attempts to befriend her with overt naïveté and provides a sounding board for her to open up and process her distress. Often this involves his enduring the times when she loses her patience and lashes out at his callow whiteness. As much of an apparent contrast as they are, both characters are clearly obscuring parts of their lives, which makes us curious about what they’re hiding. Both of them are also learning to shed their ignorance of the ruthless artifices that proponents of white supremacy use to obliterate the livelihoods of people of color and preserve the privileges of rich white people.
It’s impressive to read an enthralling thriller that’s so relevantly rooted in the unnerving truth of American history. Cole builds her story around gentrification, a frightening phenomenon that erases the identity and diversity of entire communities, in an extremely realistic manner. Between chapters, the discourse on a neighborhood watch app called OurHood give a glimpse at the undercurrent of complicity and neglect in Gifford Place. Without giving away spoilers, there’s a turn in the plot where multiple elements interconnect, driving home just how much calculation has gone into the racism and hatred and how much it eerily reflects real-world systems. This is proof that gaining insight in our nation’s racist inheritance doesn’t have to be restricted to the piles of nonfiction reads out there. A suspense novel can be equally enlightening and unputdownable.
In short, When No One Is Watchingcouldn’t have arrived at a better time. It’s a top-notch novel that utilizes the thriller genre to contribute to bigger conversations and it needs to be added to your TBR list ASAP.
All my love and prayers go to you, readers. Stay healthy and stay strong.
Windup score: 96/100