Alyssa Cole: When No One is Watching

Book review by Dakotah Jennifer

Image courtesy of She's SINGLE Magazine/ Book Cover Image Provided by HarperCollins Publishers

“People bury the parts of history they don't like, pave it over like African cemeteries beneath Manhattan skyscrapers. Nothing stays buried in this city, though.”


Alyssa Cole’s new novel, When No One Is Watching, is a striking turn from her usual genre. Already an award-winning author for her historical romance novels, Cole decided to pivot; her newest novel is a suspenseful, clever, and heart-wrenching look at a Brooklyn neighborhood’s battle with gentrification. Told from the perspective of Cole’s two main characters, Theo and Sydney, the novel plants us in a panicky sort of dread at the state of both their neighborhood, the culture that has created it, and the sinister secrets that lay beneath the surface.


For Cole, the personal has always been political. Many of Cole’s works are historical romances, with the occasional science fiction series. Though princesses, soldiers, and happily-ever-afters fill her pages, Cole’s works include politics and history. Whether her piece is set during the civil war, the medieval times, the revolutionary war, or the present-day. “There is so much to draw from across the history of humankind — staying in one time period, or even one genre, [would be] boring,” Cole states in an interview with Vulture. Indeed, one could expect that her historical pieces tend to include politics and markers of the time, but even Cole’s modern romance novels are imbued with political meaning. Her works are automatically political because of the characters, the authenticity, the revolutionary existence— Cole’s The Reluctant Royals series places Black women at the forefront as scientists, swordsmiths, and most of all, royalty. Cole’s move is not only vital but political by default, as most things are when identity is involved. “Sometimes you see those things where people are like, don’t be a princess, be a scientist or Don’t give her a princess wand, give her a beaker…” Cole recalled. “...Not everyone was told they could be a princess. A very specific subset of women were generally the people that were thought of when the word ‘princess’ was used.”


As the author of almost twenty-five works, Cole is not only an accomplished writer but, in many ways, a capable historian. “I love history,” Cole said. “But [in research] you come across things that are so horrible because humans can be extremely terrible.” It is this terror that creeps into Cole’s newest novel, When No One Is Watching and feels both urgent and tangible.


This is why Cole’s newest book, a more modern and sinister novel, seems to transcend time, even as it is firmly placed in modern-day New York. Cole’s language, authenticity, and honesty in this novel are not only striking but stunning in their portrayal of a nightmarish sort of real-life horror story. Through two voices, Cole tells a story of learning, pain, disbelief, and terror— all while making reality surreal and vice versa. Her use of two opposing first-person voices allows us to see not only the inevitable historical pain of her character Sydney but also a sort of too slow, guilt-filled awakening that Theo experiences.


The book, truly a candid, emotional, alarming work of art, is not only about the story, the narrative, the language, but about what we can learn from watching a community grieve, be stifled and turn inside out; how we can learn something from seeing two sides of this cruel coin and the disturbing forces behind them. Cole artfully scrambles to show us this narrative, to lift it to us and say See? This is all of the bad that has happened; these are the horrors people experience every day. This thriller, ultimately, seems to be about the terror, suspense, and danger that can manifest in the real-life devastation that is gentrification, racial inequality, and injustice. But as the readers, we seem to be too late, or right on time at the very least. Cole’s piece cracks open the chest of this small Brooklyn community and reveal all of the sinister things that threaten to infiltrate. The novel, When No One is Watching, that’s coming this September, is not only about dark secrets on a dimly lit Brooklyn street in a rapidly gentrifying community: it is about everything that can happen, that can fall apart and disappear, while people are not paying attention.


Download the digital copy here.


With her beautiful, dark, painful, alluring, bitter laugh of a novel, Cole begs us to pay attention and understand what can happen in a community—in a country—when no one is watching.


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