When No One Is Watching
Home is where the heart is. In America, it’s also where we store a lot of our wealth – not just the stuff inside the house, but the investment it represents in and of itself. Home can also be a source of great danger, which is the theme of When No One Is Watching.
A difficult divorce finds Sydney Green back in the Brooklyn neighborhood in which she was born and raised, but a lot has changed in the short time she has been gone. Slowly but surely the area is being gentrified, with the Black residents being pushed aside to make way for young, up and coming white couples who are eager to renovate the historic brownstones for which the community is famous. When Sydney takes a walking tour through the district to discover just what is being said about the region, her temper is pushed to its limit. The guide speaks of the distant past when the neighborhood had belonged to white families with nostalgia and respect and mentions nothing of the successful Black homeowners who have made the precinct their own. Sydney starts to add tidbits of information to every spot they stop at, making sure the full history is represented. Some of the tourists complain about her interruptions but she finds an unexpected ally in her new neighbor Theo, a guy with dirty-blond hair and “ridiculous cheekbones” who seems to find her additions genuinely interesting.
Theo had moved to Gifford Place with his girlfriend filled with excitement about the diverse, multicultural subdivision and the home they would refurbish and in which they’d build a life together, but their relationship imploded shortly after they moved in. He lost his job and burned enough bridges on the way out that future employment prospects look slim. His girlfriend responded by cheating on him, belittling him and forcing him to live in the part of their home that has no working water or air conditioning. To add insult to injury, she has increasingly displayed a growing hostility and disdain for the Black denizens of their community, making him extremely embarrassed and uncomfortable. Now they are barely civil housemates and he has a feeling even that won’t last much longer. He doesn’t want to leave his new home – he loves it – but she put up the majority of the down-payment and he is certain she will either want him to give her money he doesn’t have or get out.
Determined to enjoy his time there while it lasts, Theo attends a planning meeting for a block party and runs into the beautiful, dynamic young woman from the tour. He’s seen her around the neighborhood before but this is the first time he and Sydney have had a chance to do more than exchange casual greetings. When she mentions guiding a walking tour as part of the festivities so that people can learn the Black history of the area, he quickly volunteers to help her with the research. What they discover will put them both in greater danger than they could have possibly imagined.
The star of this story is the history surrounding Black displacement and erasure. Having recently read The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein (as well as several other texts on segregation), I can give full credit to the research the author did into the horrific accounts of injustice from the past (and present) upon which she bases her fictional but believable tale. I also appreciated Ms. Cole’s careful use of location. By placing her narrative in New York City, she highlights the North’s deep participation in racist practices.
The character of Sydney serves as a perfect focal point for this urban horomedy. A local gal who has just recently returned to Gifford Place, she is able to immediately grasp the changes occurring right before her eyes. Many of the residents have been blinded by the gradual pace and practical explanations of the neighborhood’s evolving demographics, but with her fresh yet well-informed-by-past-knowledge eyes she quickly grasps what is going on. I liked her no-nonsense style and her strong, capable personality as well as the vulnerability she displays. Her ex essentially gaslighted her, her mother (whom she calls mommy) has been slowly dying before her eyes, her neighborhood appears to be dying alongside mommy, and all of that has led to Sydney’s insomnia. There are moments when our clear-eyed, clever and insightful heroine doubts herself and we find ourselves fearing she will question all she is seeing. This folds perfectly into the tale since it adds an eerie sense of uncertain terror to what is happening.
Theo, like Sydney, feels that life has bottomed out from under him. He’s worked hard to leave his former – not so great – life behind, and is eager to build something new in Gifford Place. Losing everything he’s built up all at once knocked the wind out of him and he’d crawled into a drunken hole to lick his wounds, and he’s been heavily dependent on endless inebriation to get him through the day for some time when we meet him. He gets to know Sydney just as he decides he’s wallowed in self-pity long enough and is taking tentative steps to take control of his existence, but it isn’t an easy relationship. She is naturally irritated by and resentful of anyone who has moved to the neighborhood as part of the gentrification process. Having a racist ex doesn’t aid his budding relationship with her.
I liked that their relationship is a slow burn. Both of them have dark edges in their history and wounds that need to heal, so it works that while the attraction is instant, the love definitely isn’t. They bond slowly over their interest in history and their growing concerns over what is happening in the neighborhood they love.
I liked less that the mystery was also a slow burn. In fact, it was essentially non-existent for the first fifty percent of the book. Combined with a romance that was moving at a near-glacial pace that meant the start of the story read more like general fiction, describing life in a New York neighborhood, than it did a romance or thriller. Fortunately, at the fifty percent point, everything gels and the narrative becomes riveting. The sales blurb promises that ‘Rear Window meets Get Out in this gripping thriller” and the second half of the novel definitely delivers on that promise.
When No One Is Watching is a timely, pertinent tale that I think is a must read, the story just too relevant to this moment in history to be missed. The slow start might make it a bit imperfect but the important history and insight into the perspective and emotions of those whose voices have been silenced in our country for far too long more than make up for that.
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