The Brooklyn community of Gifford Place has seen its rough patches to be sure, but Sydney has always relished how her neighbors have banded together to help each other and hold the more insidious threats out of the historically Black neighborhood. But since Sydney has moved back to the venerable brownstone she’s always shared with her mother after a bruising divorce and mental breakdown, something has been off. A wealthy pharmaceutical company is moving its headquarters to the area in spite of neighbors’ protests, and the fine brownstones lovingly cared for by their Black owners are now commanding premium prices among mostly white newcomers. But when neighbors who would never sell up start disappearing from sight, Sydney realizes this in no ordinary case of gentrification. In No One Is Watching, Alyssa Cole turns systemic racism and especially the dismantling of Black communities into the terror of literal disappearance and erasure.
In reaction to a walking tour that only highlights the White history of the neighborhood, Sydney works to create her own tour that tells the rich story of the Black and Brown communities that are being displaced. When her original research partner mysteriously disappears, she begrudgingly accepts the help of Theo, a White man and her new neighbor. Theo has secrets of his own—he’s recently been fired from his banking job, his awful, rich girlfriend has made it clear he’s no use to her anymore. As for his past—better not to even ask. But as Sydney and Theo dig deeper into the neighborhood’s past and start to forge a fragile trust, the tension in the neighborhood ratchets up. The bodega shifts its wares from affordable staples to pricey wares overnight. A Black teen is arrested for no reason and disappears into the criminal justice system. Sydney’s best friend disappears, and a strange, threatening man shadows her. But when the final ‘rejuvenation’ comes to a head, Sydney and Theo may find that the truth, horrifying as it is, is very familiar.
When No One Is Watching is acclaimed romance author Cole’s first foray into thriller writing, and it’s likely to leave readers divided, but it won’t be a book that’s easily forgotten. The pacing feels off and some readers might find many white characters so overtly racist as to be easily dismissed with little thought - at least initially. Sydney and Theo make a reference to war video games toward the end, and parts of the finale feel exactly like that. It all feels a little unhinged, a little too unbelievable. But maybe these surface flaws are the point. On further reflection, even the more outlandish parts to—and let’s be frank, the White readers of the book—newly arrived residents tossing around phrases like ‘you people’ in reference to Black communities, the distrust of medical research, the targeting of young Black men—is all too real. Cole provides a list of resources at the end that she has drawn from, and many of the events in the book could find some corollary in the past—or the present for that matter. The fact that Cole likely finished When No One Is Watching prior to the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement this past summer puts the finale into even more chilling context. (There’s also an intriguing reaction from Sydney when she spots Theo sporting a BLM shirt.) And while When No One Is Watching isn’t a perfect thriller, you have to hand it to Cole for not pulling any punches or settling on easy answers.