Do you ever finish your latest read and think ‘Oh, I’d love to see this as a film’? I’m not ashamed to admit that I do it on the regular. There are so many books out there that you can feel would translate so well to the screen, whether it be because of characters, scenery or – in this case with “When No One is Watching” – because it brings up relevant issues in a fascinating way, always a great staple of Black literature. Author Alyssa Cole – primarily a writer or romance novels- took a very different turn from her usual style with this thriller. I’d say she meant a great choice. When I read the synopsis of When No One is Watching I was immediately intrigued. A neighborhood gentrification with something even darker happening just below the surface? Sign me up. 

They can break, but they can’t erase,” Gracie says. “They can build but they can’t bury us.

When No One is Watching: Synopsis

Sydney Green has moved back to her Brooklyn neighborhood of Gifford Place following a rough divorce, and to help care for her ailing mother. On a whim, she goes on a guided “historic tour” of the area, quickly becoming frustrated when the guide skirts around the African American roots of the neighborhood and its inhabitants. Beyond her anger about this issue, Sydney is seeing the rapid gentrification of the place that she grew up in. Longtime neighbors and friends are moving away, seemingly overnight, and white families are all taking their place along with massive apartment complexes with no charm or personality. 

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When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole Book Cover

Trying to manage what’s happening around her – and hiding a secret or two of her own – Sydney decides to create her own historic tour for the neighborhood to enjoy. In doing her research she’s joined by Theo, a White newcomer to Gifford Place with quite a bit of his own baggage in tow. While the research is happening, Sydney and Theo grow more and more suspicious about the neighbors and where the former residents on their street have actually gone – or if they even left willingly. 

The landscape of my life is unrecognizable; Gifford Place doesn’t feel like home.

As they start looking into things more closely, they uncover a much more sinister plot behind the brand new sheen being thrown over Gifford Place and its residents. There’s a lot more to the underbelly of this neighborhood, and its long time residents are a lot more resilient than they seem. It’ll take a lot more than some sneaky moves to get rid of Sydney or the people that she loves.

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When No One is Watching: Thrilleriffic Review

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Representation of the brownstones in Gifford Place

I came across the cover and description of When No One is Watching around the time of its release last year, and I added it to my tbr almost immediately. It had the same kind of vibe as Get Out, Jordan Peele’s groundbreaking film from 2017 – an outside appearance of normalcy with something much more sinister right below the surface. This plays out incredibly well throughout the course of When No One is Watching. Sydney was a shrewd and resilient protagonist who wouldn’t accept things at face value, quite a good trait for the mystery at the heart of this story. The contrast of her more suspicious nature with Theo’s more laid-back attitude makes for an interesting look at race and what people assume is average or appropriate behavior in various situations. 

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.

The narrative creates an effective sense of unease throughout the course of the novel, with Cole drawing readers into the mystery of Gifford Place and what’s really happening to its residents. In reading the novel you can feel the sense of importance behind the story and message about gentrification and what it does to neighborhoods and the people who live in them.

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Alyssa Cole has previously written a lot of very popular historical romance, but she really took a turn with When No One is Watching, delving into important racial issues and creating imperfect characters to match our imperfect world. The slow build – giving the reader time to get a feel for the neighborhood and follow Sydney and her suspicions – which may seem exaggerated at first glance – become genuinely terrifying.   

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When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole

I will say that the reveal of the villains of the novel (as well as their final plot reveal) did feel a little bit cartoonish to a certain extent – although on the other side of that argument given the state of the world I suppose nothing is out of the realm of possibility. The climax and aftermath were definitely fast paced, which I found actually helped to create a sense of stress and urgency, doing the thriller genre proud. Seriously seeing this played out in a film one day would be all kinds of crazy. Sydney and Theo untangle the web of corporate deceit with deft hands, and I found myself actually sad when the story ended. I wanted more of their characters, more of sleuthing and more of the aftermath.

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When No One is Watching: Final Thoughts

When No One is Watching was such a fun read; I know that sounds odd given the genre and content, but it really was. Sydney’s glib delivery lends itself well to the realism of the character and the situation she finds herself in. Cole has found an excellent balance between the mystery and horror of the situation while also painting a realistic picture of strong community ties and how your neighbors can really be like your family. 

Our house feels like a prison, but our neighborhood is like something out of a movie. When I walk around Gifford Place, or even just from my window, I don’t feel crushed by the multi-car pileup of stupid decisions I’ve made. I feel like this is a place I can belong, eventually.

The novel is a compelling look at racial divides and what gentrification can do to a diverse area. When No One is Watching is a compelling story that tackles socio-economic issues in a fresh way, and I for one am excited to see what she’ll be up to next.  

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8.0
Score

Pros

  • Good Pacing
  • Engaging Characters
  • Cool Caper
  • Charming Setting
  • Tackles Social Issues

Cons

  • Exaggerated Villainous Plot
Realistic Heroine
8/10
Sense of Community
9/10
Gripping Mystery
9/10
Slow Burn
8/10
Wonky Conspiracy Plot
6/10

Final Verdict

When No One is Watching brings a thrilling dive into racial and socio-economic divides, and what a strong sense of community can accomplish.