Alyssa Cole’s gripping and disturbing novel, When No One is Watching, deservedly won an Edgar Award for best paperback original this year (given by the Mystery Writers of America). The book may be couched as a thriller, but Cole tackles historical injustices, as well as contemporary issues of racism, white supremacy, capitalism and the evil side of science, in a nail-biting book.
The recently divorced Sydney Green, comes back to live in her childhood home in a predominantly Black Brooklyn locality, which is not just being rapidly gentrified, but her old neighbours are mysteriously vanishing overnight. Her abusive marriage has made her somewhat mentally unstable. Still, when she sees a tour guide with a bunch of white people distorting the history of the Gifford Place, she decides to start her own tour to correct the attempts to ‘whitewash’ history in order to erase the horrors of what the Black community suffered. In the process of research, she stumbles upon some secrets—past and present.
Meanwhile, a white couple has moved into the house across the street, and it seems their relationship is already strained. His nasty girlfriend, Kim, wants to dump him, and Theo is bored, jobless and broke. He befriends Sydney and they make a twosome of unreliable narrators– Theo is obviously hiding something, as is Sydney. But he is well-meaning and amiable, so when he turns up at community meetings and volunteers help, she takes him up on it.
As new people move into the neighbourhood with its terrible racist history, the truth is in danger of being obliterated. The older and delightfully eccentric residents have much to worry about. The pressures on them to move out get increasingly vicious, going so far as to target kids. There is also a large pharma company that is planning to build its headquarters nearby, and they are up to no good. (Is there a pharma company in popular fiction that is not sinister?)
As Sydney’s paranoia grows, people die or disappear, realtors keep pestering her to sell her home and threatening goons arrive at her doorstep, the book hurtles towards a complicated, if slightly overdone sci-fi climax, when all loose ends are neatly tied up.
However, as the daily news in the US (and elsewhere) shows, Cole’s story and her concerns are valid; those in power do oppress the weak and the struggles of marginalised communities get tougher as they are up against rampaging greed. When No One’s Watching is fiction, but so deeply rooted in facts that it is as disturbing as it is informative.
When No One Is Watching
By Alyssa Cole