I try to imagine how Gifford Place must have looked to the people who lived here back then. Big-ass trees and thick underbrush. Darkness unbroken by streetlights. And in that darkness, the sudden arrival of men who’d decided the land was theirs. . .– When No One is Watching
Summary and Thoughts
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 neighbors 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 after 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?
Wow – this was one ambitious book. In Cole’s thriller novel, When No One is Watching, she takes on the horrors of systemic racism in gentrification and provides an incredible historical background to Brooklyn – from colonization to the notorious Opioid Crisis – and threads it into an enthralling mystery that makes history exhilarating to consume. Though I found the pacing a bit slow in the beginning, overall, this was a delight to read, with the last 30% of the book being absolutely shocking. I personally saw the merit in such an extreme ending, as it set in stone the themes and messages the book had set up prior, though I can understand if for others, there was too big of a shift in action to be believable.
That being said, while the messages and history in the book are commendable, I found the characters only serviceable in their memorability — really just existing to keep the themes and action moving. I would have enjoyed seeing Sydney on one of her better days, or at least more of her memories, in order to get to know her better, as well as more on Theo’s past. All side characters felt pretty flat, and while this wasn’t necessarily distracting, I do think more could have been done to make them more memorable, especially in relation to the book’s themes. Overall, though I feel privileged to have read such a unique tale, there were still some areas in the writing that needed some work. If you’re somewhat familiar with gentrification in New York then this will be a read that clicks with you instantly, however, if not, I’m not sure how much context will need to be explained in order to understand all the references and the severity of the issue. Still, I’d definitely recommend this book for anyone interested in reading a social thriller/mystery.
P.S. The way Cole writes white people’s dialogue . . . seriously sent a shiver up my spine, lol! Always the scariest parts of the book.
For Those Who Enjoyed
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- The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
- Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson
- Lakewood by Megan Giddings
2 thoughts on “Review: When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole”
I’m picking up the book this month. I’m not familiar with the history of New York and gentrification but I hope I enjoy it. Love your review by the way👍