When No One is Watching’s primary narrator is Sydney Green. Her Brooklyn neighborhood is a museum where all exhibits — living, dead, or inconspicuous — must not only be acknowledged, but second-guessed. Alyssa Cole’s novel is said to conversate with the likes of Rear Window and Get Out. The comparison is at its strongest once readers understand they’re being asphyxiated in Sydney’s psyche and paranoia as forcefully as Black residents are being plucked out of Gifford Place.

“Author Alyssa Cole’s novel is said to conversate with the likes of Rear Window and Get Out.”

What When No One Is Watching offers that Hitchcock and Peele don’t is a consistent two-way, albeit mostly unnecessary, point of view. Theo, the novel’s second — and white — narrator provides a perspective that begins and ends with the intent to eliminate him as a suspect when the pre-apocalypse arises. Theo tells his girlfriend, referred to by Sydney as Bodega Becky among other pointedly accurate labels, and her acquaintances that the neighborhood’s Black residents are “planning something fun for everyone” and they’re “acting like it’s leading up to Harpers Ferry.”

The something Theo refers to is an impending block party slash tour during which Sydney plans to show all residents, new and old, the multidimensional and generational history of the only place she seems to have ever found grounding in. Theo’s statement foreshadows one of several twists of the novel and the horizon after a battle that not all the Gifford Place residents will survive. Like abolitionist John Brown did at Harpers Ferry, Cole and her protagonists lead the neighbors to an abyss that everyone is not certain to resurface from.

The irony of the title When No One is Watching, a story left mostly in the hands of an emotionally frustrated school administrator, Sydney, and an unemployed former conman, Theo, is that the novel is a familiar tale. If only so to its Black and brown readers, it is about what happens when both the spectators and the spectated are watching everything, about how what they’re seeing is significant beyond them individually.

When No One Is Watching makes it clear that there are heavy physical and emotional tolls to be paid for choosing to actively participate in the resurfacing of history’s secrets.”

The novel offers readers a takeaway thought: there is a “joyful side to sharing information” and “finding instances of people burying land mines in the past, finding them right as they’re blowing up under our feet in the here and now.” When No One Is Watching makes it clear that there are heavy physical and emotional tolls to be paid for choosing to actively participate in the resurfacing of history’s secrets. It also proves that even those unwilling to lend a helping hand are sure to have to deal with the ramifications of past decisions. 

The land mines of Cole’s novel begin exploding more than halfway through the novel, but as land mines go, what is underground and temporarily docile is just as dangerous as what rumbles above the surface.

By Cree Pettaway

CREE NICHELLE PETTAWAY is a Southern, Black woman from Mobile, Alabama, a 2021 Best Microfiction Nominee, and a 2020/2021 postdoctoral English fellow at Louisiana State University. Her recent publications include “Fragility” (forthcoming from The Bitchin’ Kitsch) and “How A 1961 Doll Experiment Is Still Symbolic Of Society’s Erasure Of Black Women’s Pain” (Blavity). You can find her @cree_pettaway on Instagram.

ALYSSA COLE is a New York Times and USA Today Bestselling author of romance (historical, contemporary, and sci-fi) and thrillers. Her Civil War-set espionage romance An Extraordinary Union was the American Library Association’s RUSA Best Romance for 2018, and A Princess in Theory was one of the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2018. When she’s not working, she can usually be found watching anime or wrangling her pets. Find her on her website.

Prolific romance author Alyssa Cole delivers a chilling thriller about gentrificationWhen No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole
Published by William Morrow on 1 Sep 2020
Genres: Horror, Psychological, African American, Thriller, Urban
Pages: 352
Format: Paperback
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three-half-stars

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?