Carole Bell's Reviews > When No One is Watching

When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole
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it was amazing

Love this novel. Now listening to the audiobook. I was thrilled I got to do a Q and A with author Alyssa Cole about When No One Is Watching and also write a review for BookPage. In the interview she talks about her inspirations for the novel and much more.



A Thriller Grows in Brooklyn

A squeaky clean honors student gets arrested for selling drugs. A gregarious old man vanishes in the middle of the night, leaving his beloved dog and his belongings behind. Longtime Black residents are disappearing from Gifford Place, and wealthy White people are moving in. Something is definitely wrong with this picture, and it’s worse than run of the mill gentrification.

By now, many will have seen When No One Is Watching (William Morrow, $16.99, 9780062982650) described as Rear Window meets Get Out. Those comparisons are shockingly apt. Cole’s latest triumph incorporates elements of both psychological thriller and social horror, its finale is a bit macabre, much like Get Out, and there is a romantic subplot as well, just as there was in Hitchcock’s masterpiece. But Cole's story is also highly original. She is drawing directly from the turbulent social currents and grim realities of today, crafting a nightmare from everyday terrors, both large and small.

The protagonist, Sydney, is beautifully imperfect, but, as in Tana French’s Dublin Murder series and The Witch Elm, it’s those imperfections, the dark sense of humor and the human frailties, that really make the story work. Through the story of one woman defending her home and her neighborhood, Cole dramatizes the economic displacement of racialized capitalism as well as the petty skirmishes that take place between the new settlers and old, and between Black and White on a daily basis in places like Fort Greene and Bed Stuy. There’s simply no one better equipped to distill the racial politics of this moment into intriguing and terrifying entertainment.

Perhaps the best evidence of Cole’s skill in this regard is the remarkable correspondence between a fictional event in the book and a real life incident that occurred just miles away from where the book is set. In May, a White woman was walking her dog off-leash in Central Park (in violation of the rules). When a concerned Black birdwatcher asked her to leash her dog, she falsely accused him of threatening her and reported him to the police. The incident occurred many months after Cole finished her manuscript, and yet the two confrontations strike frighteningly similar chords. Before calling 9-1-1, Cooper warned the man: “I’m gonna tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” He stood his ground.

A similar standoff occurs between the protagonist, Sydney, an African American woman who is a longtime resident and owner of a brownstone on Gifford Place, and Kim, a “high-ponytailed LuluLemon” wearing newcomer, who is white. Viewers of the Central Park video saw that Amy Cooper was the aggressor, and that she was explicitly using her racial identity and his to claim authority. Readers will find the same is true with Kim and Sydney. It’s all about social control. Kim has done something wrong, and tries to get out of it by accusing Sydney of “making me feel unsafe” and, again just like Amy Cooper, saying “I’ll call the police.” As Cole explained, “ it’s not because I’m prescient, it’s because this kind of power play happens all the time, in ways small and large, often from white people who don’t think they’re racist.”

Here Cole actually exercises restraint. Though thrillers tend to present heightened versions of reality, just as in Get Out, until the grisly denouement, the tensions that Cole brings to life on the page are hardly exaggerated. The petty insults and indignities that occur on Gifford Place happen every day in shops and corners throughout America. The book also includes snippets of discussions from a neighborhood forum called “OurHood” which seems to be modeled on NextDoor. Having seen some of those discussions, let’s just say the book lets the new neighbors off easy. One of my favorite parts hits way too close to home. This is a text from one corrupt gentrifier to another:
I hate rushing things too, but I’m not in charge here. Besides, my father is pretty sure even if they all notice, it won’t matter. Other corps have razed entire towns. In the past, they’ve dropped bombs, polluted water. No one cares, lmao. True. I could record myself shooting one of them in the face and get off scot-free, lmfao. No one will pay any attention to this.

The ending is a bit rushed and if they’re like me, some readers will question the need for some of the violence as the protagonist takes some of the villains out in a blaze of fury.

Overall, though, this is a brilliant first foray into the genre—Cole leverages her strengths to great effect, incorporating history, biting social observation and even some romance along the way, though Sydney's love interest is far from a hero. The unusual, complex romantic subplot is one of the most surprising elements in already pretty shocking thriller. Cole is brutal in how she subverts while also playing on romantic expectations.

Another element that distinguishes When No One is Watching is its grounding not just in present day politics, but in history. Cole made her name in historical romance and it shows. The Brooklyn history she includes enriches and deepens the story. Alyssa Cole packs in a lot of very uncomfortable information about the legacy of colonialism and systemic racism into this 21st century thriller, placing current events firmly in context and conversation with the past. The story Alyssa Cole tells is a disturbing one. That doesn’t make it any less true or less of a pleasure to read.

Note: A shorter, edited version of this review will run in BookPage
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Quotes Carole Liked

Alyssa Cole
“My neck and chest go hot in a flash and I look away. I should just start building my cabin alongside Fuckboy Creek because obviously it’s where I intend to spend the rest of my days.”
Alyssa Cole, When No One is Watching

Alyssa Cole
“Sydney.” Theo is grinning as he calls my attention back to him, though his eyes are somber. “I need you to channel the confidence of a mediocre white man. I’ll give you mine. We’ll figure it out because we don’t have any other choice.”
Alyssa Cole, When No One is Watching

Reading Progress

February 13, 2020 – Shelved
February 13, 2020 – Shelved as: to-read
July 5, 2020 – Started Reading
July 8, 2020 –
5.0% "The scene setting in Brooklyn is all too real."
July 8, 2020 –
12.0% "The Amy Cooper of Brooklyn:

Kim’s face is pink now. “You need to stop attacking me.” The woman tilts her head in confusion. “Attacking?”
“You’re making me feel unsafe and if you don’t stop, I’ll—I’ll call the police.”
There’s a malicious glee on her face as she says it, like she knows her renovating work has woken me up. An expression that says, I’m fucking with you just because I can."
July 8, 2020 –
20.0% "Alyssa Cole is a master. These gentrifiying weirdos are truly giving me the creeps."
July 9, 2020 –
75.0% "It's really, really good and twisty."
July 9, 2020 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-1 of 1 (1 new)

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Blythe Stanfel What happened to the mom’s dead body and the ‘Gas Man’s’ dead body and ‘Ruth’s’ dead body? Also, does Theo get the Brownstone because Kim is dead and his name is on the lease?

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