With a premise that sounds like many journeys towards self-discovery, Gone Like Yesterday—Janelle M. Williams’ debut novel with striking magical realism—manages to be anything but typical.
Zahra Robinson is a New York transplant who is called to return to her hometown outside of Atlanta under straining circumstances: her pragmatically detached brother has gone missing and her family believes she is the only person who can find him. Yet, while she’s called to find someone who has distanced themselves from much of life’s practicalities, she has recently found herself taking on more. As a freelance college preparation tutor, Zahra’s pedigree ensures that she only works with privileged students who can afford her steep fees, until she becomes entangled in the lives of Harlemites who remind her that surviving on her own doesn’t mean she has to go it alone.
Though so much of Zahra’s experience resonated with me because of our similarities—living in NY through our twenties and early thirties after growing up in the South; holding academic experiences in high esteem only to interrogate the harm it brings later—I think readers from many walks of life will be similarly drawn into this novel. The prose maintains a lyrical flow throughout the narrative, making for storytelling that is as captivating as it is propulsive. The strengths in this writing is as apparent in its detailing of setting and conveyance of character thought and dialogue, lending to a well-paced movement from one perspective to another. This tone is maintained as the characters leave New York to find Zahra’s brother in her hometown. As the characters explore what has led them to a small town outside of Atlanta (for Sammie, Zahra’s protege, it’s a college tour and the opportunity to decide her next move), they are influenced by mysterious voices that have a tendency towards nostalgic singing. Williams’ balance of each of these elements work well in leading the reader to be as unsettled by the call to family, self-evaluation, and responsibility felt by Sammie and Zahra as they determine what is most important to them after spending much of their time aiming to get ahead.
Gone Like Yesterday is unequivocally my favorite book of the year so far. It is a story that asks what we find most important in the pursuit of success and which experiences in our lives have led us to defining it as we do. Pick this up if you’re in the mood for a literary novel with well-dispensed magical realism, pacing, character development, and a plot that helps you see connections within community.