When No One is Watching: A Thriller by Alyssa Cole

Monday, January 10, 2022


When No One is Watching: A Thriller by Alyssa Cole

Published by William Morrow Paperbacks, September 1, 2020

Genre: Fiction Thriller

Format: Audiobook via Audible

If a research paper and a romance novel had a baby, we'd call this one Gentrification. This is my first Alyssa Cole read. When I looked into some of her other works, the pattern started to make sense.

Slow Burn Leads to Wam Bam

Sydney is a Brooklynite returning home after dissolving a relationship. The Brooklyn neighborhood of her childhood--the one where the corner store owner knows her by name, where she can count on Mr. Perkins walking his dog at a certain time, and where her mama owns the vacant lot that has become a community garden--is changing. She goes on a neighborhood tour, and the tour guide does nothing but talk about the white history of the neighborhood, but Sydney knows each of the threads that make up the fabric of her community by name, so she decides to create a tour that highlights the real value of the neighborhood--as she knows it.

Over the next 2/3 of the novel, beloved neighbors disappear without reasonable explantions, and white folks move in, forming their own social media neighborhood group, making snide comments about the cleanliness of the former inhabitants, and generally acting like wretches. One of these white newbies, Theo, is down-and-out in his own way, befriends Sydney as she researches for her tour and tries to piece together the mystery of her missing neighbors.

When Sydney discovers an iPad logged in to the private neighborhood group's messages, she finds the answers she has been looking for, and the story erupts with police, secret passageways, cages, and more--ending in five minutes of . . . hold on---what?

Minor Characters and Tone

I liked reading about this extreme case of white people (in this book) deciding Brooklyn is now rad, renovating, and driving up prices so that the current culture in a neighborhood is eradicated. Cole mentions or alludes to European settlers coming to the Americas and writing about "no one" being here, that the land was open for the taking. **Spoiler** At one point in the book, Sydney faces a shopkeeper who refused to give her proper change for her kombucha because he didn't have to. Who would believe or defend her? 

The villians in this book are so one-dimensional, it makes the story harder to buy. One girl, Sydney calls "Ponytail Lululemon." Another guy, she calls "Bill Bill" because his name is something like Bill Williams. Funny, but sassy nicknames, whiteness, and bad attiudes are all we know about these characters. Developing a few minor characters might have given Cole more opportunities to drop hints, build subplots, or deepen the tone so that the explosion at the end didn't seem so left-field. It might have also made the underlying critique of gentrification more tenable. These are more than just cardboard cutouts of a**holes.

Some critics have compared this book to Jordan Peele's script Get Out or Rear Window because of a few moments when Sydney observes Theo upstairs in his house by looking through the windows and vice versa. I thought the voyeurism was a minor point. Sydney and Theo got to know each other with no real impact of the window peeking. 

Other critics worry over the "language" in the book. I thought Cole did a great job capturing the voice and cheekiness of Sydney. Saying you are so uncomfortable you can't be near someone because of their culture--the way they speak--when it isn't actually hurting you, seems in the same lane as the "revitalization" cheerleaders Cole describes. 

There were a few places I thought physical descriptions seemed mismatched for the genre. For example, at one point when Sydney kind of likes Theo, she puts on a tee shirt that accentuates her chest and jean shorts that cling to her butt.  Cole's wording describing the outfit seems more like foreplay than exposition. 


“When I’d clambered up there as an adult, alone, I’d been struck by how claustrophobic the view looked, with new buildings filling the neighborhoods around us, where there had once been open air. Cranes loomed ominously over the surrounding blocks like invaders from an alien movie, mantis-like shadows with red eyes blinking against the night, the American flags attached to them flapping darkly in the wind, signaling that they came in peace when really they were here to destroy.”


I'm not sorry I read this book. The pacing, though, almost ruined it for me. It was soft romance for most of the book and then it morphed into a Tarantino film. I still have a little whiplash.

No comments

Post a Comment

Copyright © Betwain. Blog Design by