Book Review – When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole

books, reviews

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I have a problem with Bookstagram. My problem being that I can’t stop myself from buying the books that I see people raving about. This was one of those books. Last year this book seemed to be everywhere and I hadn’t heard anyone say anything negative about it. Of course, I was slightly skeptical. I mean book that starts off by comparing itself to Get Out and Rear Window has some pretty high expectations of itself. It’s safe to say that I have been pretty dubious about contemporary thrillers. I find the majority to be superficial and not very thrilling. Of course, the added theme of racism and gentrification of this narrative had got me interested, so I decided to go against my natural instincts. Could it possibly change the genre completely? Especially when it sounded pretty similar to the plot of Vampires vs the Bronx.

The premise of When No One is Watching was great. So great, that I expected it to earn a pretty high rating. I can’t pretend that I get too excited about contemporary thrillers but the addition of important social issues had got me interested. Gentrification and the destruction of Black neighbourhoods has been a problem for years and had the potential to set-up a very exciting thriller. Especially one that was aiming as high as being the literary Get Out. Of course, the problem with making those connections is that you’re almost setting yourself up to fail. Those are some very big shoes to fill and, unfortunately, When No One is Watching simply has feet that are slightly too small. That’s not to say that there isn’t some decent writing here but it is a book that definitely doesn’t fulfil its potential.

The novel starts off well and builds the narrative slowly. It attempts to lull you into a false sense of security by focusing on a potential love story between the two main characters. As the story moves on, it becomes increasingly obvious that something much more sinister is going on. Of course, when I say “increasingly obvious”, that’s not to say that the ending is much of a mystery. If anything, the link to Get Out is a massive spoiler and I’d say it’s unlikely that many people would read this without guessing where it will end up. But, in thrillers, it isn’t necessarily the mystery that keeps you engaged. Something really obvious can still be an enjoyable read if it’s well written. So, if When No One is Watching well written? Sort of.

It introduces us to some interesting and well-written characters. It also gets its teeth into history and the consequences of gentrification. The novel is a dual narrative that swaps between Sydney Green and Theo. Sydney is a young Black woman who is desperately trying to prevent her neighbourhood from being taken over by new residents and businesses. All of the current residents are being priced out of the area and it’s only getting worse since a pharmaceutical company decides to build their new building nearby. Sydney decides to channel her anger into a walking tour. Her time is mostly spent learning about local history with the help of an unlikely ally.

Theo, a white man, has only recently moved to the area after with his girlfriend. Although, they are essentially living separate lives and don’t actually like each other that much. With no job to occupy his time, Theo spends a lot of time drinking and watching his neighbours. Neighbours like Sydney. He is intrigued by her so doesn’t hesitate to assist her. The pair start to grow closer but, during their research, they start to realise that things aren’t normal in Gifford Park. Theo and Sydney start to suspect that the people who have recently moved out may not have done so of their own volition. Can the pair find out what’s happening before it’s too late?

On the surface, this is an exciting premise and has the potential to be quite thrilling. The problem is, the pacing in When No One is Watching is all wrong. So much of the novel is spent following Sydney and Theo undertaking their research. It’s interesting to dip into the historical stuff but it does sort of slow things down. Even when the various mysteries start emerging, it takes far too long for anyone to really notice anything. Considering how obvious it is to the reader, it’s even more frustrating that it takes so long to get going. You can see that Cole keeps adding new levels in order to drag out the big reveal. Something that leaves the novel feeling pretty messy.

Although, when compared to the final quarter of the book, it seems well organised. Another major problem with the pacing is that, towards the end of the story, everything happens at once. All of the reveals and the action takes place in one go. It’s quite a massive jump from the previous chapters and is difficult to keep up with. It does mean that the impact of the twists isn’t as strong as it should have been. It all feels a bit lame and underwhelming. Then the book just finishes. It’s all very disappointing and the book could definitely have done with a bit of structural change.

It’s not as if When No One is Watching is a terrible book. The two main characters are quite well developed, even if there is something unoriginal about them. There is also a lot of great history included in the story. The problems really come from the execution. The intentions for this book were great and I wish it had worked better. It just really needed to be thought through a bit more. It really isn’t that successful as a thriller and it felt like a really long read.

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