ARC review: When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole

I was sent this book as an advance listening copy via libro.fm for reviewing purposes, but all opinions are my own.

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?

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★★★★★

Every time an author I’ve read before writes something in a different genre than their usual I’m always so curious to check it out, and I’d read a few romance books by Alyssa Cole so I didn’t know what to expect here but I really wanted to give this a go. I’m what you would call a theoretical fan of thrillers who’s usually too scared to actually read thrillers, so I had to wait until I was mentally in a good place to start this. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down.

If you’re white like me and maybe even come from somewhere other than the US I highly encourage you to do some basic nonfiction reading on antiracism (especially anti-Black racism) and the ways racism is systematically embedded in US society (and not only in the US, but that’s where this book takes place), what its historical roots are and how this affects Black people daily. I say this not because I’m an expert but because it’s clear from some reviews that not enough of us have even tried to untangle our white feelings and therefore not only misunderstand but even accidentally prove some of the points that this thriller makes.

One of the things that surprised me most about this book is the deep sense of community that transpires from Sydney and the other Black characters. It’s something I haven’t known firsthand, but the way Alyssa Cole wrote about it from Sydney’s point of view made me feel its loss deep in my bones. To see it all taken away, and so unfairly, and knowing that this, maybe in more subtle and slower ways, actually happens, made me deeply sad and uncomfortable.

While Black authors shouldn’t have to be educational towards nonblack people in their works, I think the educational work Alyssa Cole did in this book was phenomenal, and this is partly shown through the POV character of Theo, a white guy who moved in the neighborhood with his racist (ex) girlfriend. Theo served also as an acknowledgement that not all white people are privileged in every way, and that being otherwise marginalized doesn’t take away your white privilege.

So far in this review I’ve only given an overview about the social themes in the book, but please know that I loved the story and the way it developed. It was scary and made more scary by how rooted in reality it is. Sydney and Theo felt realistically flawed and went through so much internal work, learning from one another and learning to trust each other. I also really liked how Sydney set clear boundaries when it came to how Theo manifested his whiteness, and he readily understood and accepted them.

This being a thriller I really don’t want to give much of the plot away. I think while some parts of the ending were maybe a little rushed, I still loved it and I thought all loose ends were solved in the end, while still leaving you with a sense of discomfort because what we saw in the book is only one part of something much bigger. I don’t think I’ve ever finished an audiobook with literal goosebumps in my arms but I did when I finished this, and by the way the narration was really good and I highly recommend reading this in audio format if you can.

TWs: racism, microaggressions towards Black characters, gentrification, police and police brutality, nonconsensual medical experiments, past abusive relationships, abductions

7 thoughts on “ARC review: When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole

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