Book Review: When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

When No One is Watching is an extremely poignant and timely book that touches on the very issues confronting society today.  The fact that it is done in a thriller makes it even more interesting.  I think what made this book seem so crazy is that it is happening all over the country.  Alyssa Cole does a brilliant job of putting race at the forefront of the gentrification process, which is right where it should be. 

Goodreads Synopsis:

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 her beloved neighborhood seems to change every time she blinks.  Condos are sprouting like weeds, FOR SALE signs are popping up overnight, and the neighbor’s she’s known all her life are disappearing.  To hold onto her community’s past and present, Sydney channels her frustration into a walking tour 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 at all, and the push 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?

Review:

I was so excited when I was approved for an advanced copy of this book!  It had been on my radar and I was looking forward to reading it.  The comparisons to Rear Window and Get Out snagged my attention and is exactly what this book reminds me of.  We quickly realize something is very wrong in Gifford Place, but we aren’t privy to the details.  What is clear is that lifelong residents are moving, some in the dead of night, and they’re being replaced with white families that definitely have something to hide.

Our protagonist, Sydney, moved back to her childhood home after some unfortunate events and helps take care of her mother while she tries to figure out what to do next.  After attending a disastrous walking tour filled with misinformation, Sydney decides to start her own tour.  She begins feverishly researching, interviewing, and speaking with her neighbors that have lived on the block much longer than her.  Sydney starts to notice that there are more and more white people moving onto the street, which is unsettling and extremely sudden.  It seems that the people she’s familiar with are disappearing at an alarming rate and without any notice.  Initially, she comes off a little paranoid, but very observant and aware of her neighborhood.  For this reason, Sydney is somewhat of an unreliable narrator. 

A new couple has moved in next door and the man, Theo, seems eager to help Sydney after his lady friend makes a scene in the convenience store.  I was very suspicious of Theo’s motive in wanting to help Sydney and shared in her paranoia and guarded attitude.  I constantly questioned whether he was being genuine or if he was playing Sydney.  Even coming up on the ending of the book I still wasn’t 100% certain about trusting Theo.

What Sydney and Theo begin to uncover is beyond disturbing.  This neighborhood has a dark history and they start to realize, that maybe it isn’t history at all.  A medical research company is moving in, building its massive facility, and pushing out all the lifelong residents in the process.  Right off the bat I knew that this company was bad news and up to no good.  We start to pick up on little clues about what is going on and it’s obvious that the company intends to gentrify the community and remove all its Black and other people of color from the picture.  What bothers Sydney the most is that her neighbors are just disappearing, and nobody seems to know where to find them or how they are.  All that the remaining residents are told is the story the new neighbor provides.

Sydney and Theo encounter a lot of resistance from the new neighbors, including Theo’s lady friend, who is clearly in the thick of whatever is going on.  It seems like every time they find a promising lead, something pops up that prevents them from pursuing it.  Meanwhile, Sydney’s paranoia becomes front and center and it is hard to tell whether she is rightfully questioning everything or if she’s losing her mind.  As the story progresses, the plot gets darker and more troubling.  Where are all the neighbors?  Are they hurt?  Are they in danger?  Are they alive?

What is so unsettling about this book is that the United States has a long history of gentrification and taking property from Blacks and other people of color.  Cole does an incredible job talking about privilege and does so in a way that really conveys the impacts of that privilege.  The dialogue between Sydney and Theo is so well written.  She is unapologetic and unafraid to show Theo how irrational his thoughts and feelings are by contrasting with her real fears and experiences.     

If I had one criticism it would be that the majority of the book is a fantastic slow burn, but the ending felt extremely rushed.  I loved the action-packed resolution, but I think it could have been fleshed out a little more.  Other than that, I really have no complaints. 

This book is so important to read right now in light of events surrounding racism, social injustice, and privilege.  Cole provides an education with real life situations and experiences.  There is so much to takeaway from When No One is Watching and apply in our day to day lives.  I strongly encourage everyone to pick up this book and read!

Thanks to Netgalley and William Morrow for my advanced e-book copy in an exchange for an honest review.

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