– When No One Is Watching

When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole. New York: Harper Collins, 2020. 352 pp.

Sydney Green is back home in Brooklyn after a devastating divorce, but she’s returned to a neighborhood that’s changing; old neighbors seem to be selling and disappearing. Real estate prices are predicted to skyrocket thanks to a proposed campus of VerenTech, a big pharmaceutical company, on the site of the closed neighborhood hospital. To top it off, Sydney’s mom is sick, and real estate agents and lawyers are circling, trying to get her to sell their beloved home.

Seeking a refuge in her love of history, Sydney takes a tour of historic brownstones, but the tour guide is painting a picture of her neighborhood, Gifford Place, that Sydney doesn’t recognize, one full of Dutch settlers and other rich, white people who lived in the area hundreds of years before. So she editorializes, interjecting stories of the people and the place she knows, the Black people who have called her neighborhood home for generations. After the tour guide curtly suggests it, Sydney decides to put together her own tour of Gifford Place.

Channeling her frustration into a deep dive on neighborhood history, she finds herself with an unlikely research assistant in newcomer Theo, who has been renovating the house across the street with his girlfriend. The deeper they get into the area’s past, the more it seems like history might be repeating itself. More of Sydney’s friends and neighbors are “moving” and she finds herself wondering if they’re doing so by choice. She and Theo begin to believe there’s a conspiracy at play, but how much of what they see is real, and how much is paranoia?

Described as “Rear Window meets Get Out,” acclaimed romance author Alyssa Cole’s first foray into suspense is a doozy, with twists and turns that will keep you guessing until the last few pages. Cole’s skill with translating emotions to the page works just as well with anxiety and fear as it does with romance, and she doesn’t abandon romance completely, there’s still some heat. Overall, it’s a thriller you won’t want to put down.

But Cole doesn’t stop with just a standard thriller, she takes her experience from historical romance, and weaves the history of the ways in which Black people have been shut out of land owning and generational wealth, and sometimes had what little they owned directly stolen from them. She also brilliantly inserts situations that mirror current events in a way that subtlety ratchets up the plot tension. It’s a smart way to examine the toll that gentrification can take on neighborhoods, and the (possibly) nefarious intent behind it, that I haven’t seen done before.

When No One Is Watching is a gripping, smart ride that you don’t want to miss.

Lacey Tobias is a Circulation Assistant at Graham Library. She can be reached at ltobias@alamancelibraries.org.

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