When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole, 2020
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The Plot (from Goodreads):
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?
I finished this book about a week ago, but couldn’t figure out how I wanted to review it. In my experience, thrillers often aren’t political, often don’t represent #ownvoices views, and I usually just rate them on whether or not I was entertained. Now, I was very much entertained by this thriller, but there was so much more to it than that. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to review it through the same lens as all my other thriller reviews, focus on the timely political and social commentary that it offers, or both.
One of my goals this year was to do a better job of diversifying the books I read, and I was thrilled (ha) to find a book in my favorite genre that also serves that purpose.
This book did not start out like a thriller. Usually I hate when the “thriller” description doesn’t match the book. In this case, though, I was fascinated by the history of Brooklyn. As is the point of Sydney’s walking tour, I had never known a lot of this. I loved how well-researched this novel was.
The further I got through the book, the more the thriller aspect started to show itself. The ending was creepy, sad, and enraging, but a satisfying culmination to the story. You don’t often read too many thrillers with thought-provoking endings (at least, I haven’t lately)–when you pick up a thriller, you usually know you’re just going to get a surface-level interesting plot. I loved that When No One Is Watching did so much more.
I loved Theo’s growth throughout the book. It’s so easy for non-marginalized people (myself included) to think they aren’t racist, but to do things unknowingly in their daily life that perpetuate racism. This is why continuously educating ourselves is so important. I loved that Sydney and Theo had a code word for when Theo’s white privilege was showing, and it helped me to reflect on things in my life that I might not realize come across as racist. He’s not perfect, but at least he’s out there trying to improve!
Too often in thrillers, diversity is completely ignored. Any diverse characters are secondary, under-developed, or the antagonist. I can’t remember the last thriller I read with a BIPOC main character (actually, it was The Missing Sister with an Asian MC). I appreciated this thought-provoking commentary on the current social/political climate.
I read a lot of reviews before writing this one, and I think Maya from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books said it best: This book is ultimately about White Supremacy, and if that makes you uncomfortable you should read it.
Overall, I found When No One Is Watching to be completely unique. I would definitely recommend this to anyone who is tired of the same cookie-cutter, surface-level thrillers.