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GONE LIKE YESTERDAY
by Janelle M. Williams
Tiny Reparations Books, February 2023
355 pages
$28.00
ISBN: 0593471636


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Janelle Williams's GONE LIKE YESTERDAY is a mystery but a great deal more, too. Epic and insistent, it is a powerful, engrossing debut novel. Fans of mystery and literary fictions will find it impossible to put down and vital to have read.

It's 2019, in post-gentrification Harlem. Zahra is an African-American graduate of Stanford, originally from Atlanta. She makes a living rewriting college application essays for the children of wealthy white New Yorkers so they, too, can go to Stanford, or the range of Ivy League colleges. Zahra's own feelings about Stanford are very mixed. It was a gatekeeper of privilege that produced more privilege, in her experience. Now she, too, has become part of the privilege replication machine. Her client of the moment, named (of course) Sophia, is insufferable: correcting her mom's racism in front of Zahra while being blindly racist and classist herself, and fighting with her mother about whether to write the essay about her soup kitchen stint or about "family," excluding, of course, her Black nanny. If further proof that elite college should stop requiring, or even considering, personal essays is necessary, GONE LIKE YESTERDAY suffices.

She gets a chance to do something different in an unlikely manner: when she admits her profession to a Trinidad-born uber driver, Trey. He asks Zahra to help his niece, a high school senior, with her college essay. Zahra agrees, but discovers that Sammie needs no writing help. She's a remarkably self-assured "Trini American" girl lost at a prep school that's "20% black and brown" but staffed entirely by well-meaning white teachers, the kind of white ladies who swear by their reading of contemporary Black women novelists but have entirely white friend groups. Sammie is repelled by the boys at her school, feels bad that she can't reciprocate the affection of one of the few Black boys, and is curious about the Black boys who attend public school, who speak poetically, and with whom she's been told not to associate. Education, in Sammie's experience, consists of psychic violence. What Sammie needs isn't a ghostwriter but a mentor, a kindred spirit, and an actual teacher.

She gets that in Zahra because the disappearance of Zahra's brother Derek back in Atlanta means that Zahra has to get there somehow. Trey has a car, so the mystery becomes a road trip. It's also a magic realist tale and a love song to African-American music. The travelers listen to music on their way, and find in it the poetry that the awful world of college essays and other misuses of writing lacks. Meanwhile, Zahra searches her own memory, especially her vexed relationship with her professionally accomplished, emotionally distant mother, for clues to her brother's vanishing.

Then, in Atlanta, it adds another genre: the ghost story. A "new city" largely built after Sherman burned it down during the Civil War, Atlanta still has plenty of ghosts, especially those created by its "deforestation": the alienation and destruction of Black people who are elders or might have become them. Zahra, tutored in childhood by Derek to think about people as trees, sees Atlanta's losses this way.

Meanwhile, Sammie has her own ghosts. Who were her family in Trinidad? Why is she in New York with her uncle and grandfather, but no parents? As she gets closer to Zahra and Zahra to Trey, answers to a number of mysteries begin to reveal themselves. The past is never actually "gone like yesterday," but American society's lies make it profoundly mysterious. She begins to learn why it's so difficult for her to write about herself for an audience of gatekeepers.

You'll want to know the solutions to all this novel's suspense plots, but also to follow Zahra and Sammie on their journeys of self-discovery.

Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, April 2023

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