by Deborah Rogers
From the outset it seemed likely that Alyssa Cole’s When No One is Watching would be divisive. Billed as a psychological thriller, the story is set in a traditional Brooklyn “brownstone” neighbourhood undergoing rapid gentrification. The main character, Sydney, is disturbed by the way that the black neighbours she has grown up with are being squeezed out to make way for a new, white, community. The question that runs through the book is: “is this just the way things are, or is there something more sinister going on?”
Our readers were not entirely convinced by the pacing of this book as a thriller, and the ending descended into a Hollywood-style fever pitch of mayhem and firepower. However, there were satisfying elements within it. We enjoyed the heavy dose of humour in the way that Cole skewers stereotypes, but felt that the bad guys turned increasingly cartoonish as the plot progressed. The relationship between Sydney and Theo (the “least-bad” white character in the book) was probably the most convincing aspect, perhaps not a surprise as Cole is a prolific writer of romance novels.
Each chapter was interspersed with messages from the community’s online message boards (think Nextdoor.com or similar) and these were a clever way to interject the thoughts of some of the supporting characters, and nicely built the tension between the two sides of the community: new against old.
As a black American writer, Cole gave our group some significant subjects to think about. Woven into the increasingly dramatic storyline were lots of examples of everyday racism. We saw the black characters confronted with discrimination in many forms and it gave our readers a perspective that we’re unused to: that of feeling unable to call the police, and never being sure if you will be believed.
Although we agreed that we were probably glad we read it, I don’t think many of our group will recommend this book to others, due in part to its quite strong language. But we were impressed by the way the author managed to weave an incredible amount of black-American history into a populist story with a large potential audience. It was pleasing too at our meeting to hear recommendations for alternate thriller writers and other books set in Brooklyn, from our group of keen readers.
Next month we’ll be reading Sylvia Olsen’s new book Unravelling Canada – A Knitting Odyssey. The meeting will take place via zoom on Tuesday, September 14 at 6:30 p.m. You need to be signed up to our email list in order to receive the meeting invitation: www.seasidemagazine.ca/book-club/.