by Elizabeth Spencer

Gone Like Yesterday is the debut novel from author Janelle M. Williams. It tells the story of Zahra, a millennial in her early thirties who crosses paths with Sammie, a Gen Z high school senior. Both characters are at crossroads in their lives, and they end up traveling from New York City to Atlanta with Sammie’s uncle, Trey (an eventual love interest for Zahra), to help Sammie’s family find her missing brother, Derrick. In that sense, the novel is a hero’s journey, replete with magical realism along the way. Williams is also writing in the vein of contemporary Black literary fiction—her work reminded me of authors Tayari Jones (for the Atlanta setting) and Jesmyn Ward (for the magical realism, and for the exploration of ancestry and of the past’s effect on the present). Set in 2019, Gone Like Yesterday explores Black identity and experience through the lens of younger generations and in two different families and geographic locations.

When we meet Zahra, she is in an Uber, being driven by Trey, and is headed to an ex-boyfriend’s apartment in Harlem for the kind of ambivalent hookup that seems to define much of the modern dating experience. Zahra, who graduated from Stanford, works as a freelance college prep coach and also has a part-time restaurant job. While she usually coaches Manhattan’s elite high schoolers, whose families can afford to pay her fee, Zahra impulsively offers to help Trey’s niece with her college essay for free. 

I appreciated the novel’s specific details about socioeconomic class. For example, Trey drives for Uber in a Nissan. Zahra holds a degree from an elite university and yet has to juggle two jobs to get by in NYC. Trey pays for Sammie to attend a prep school, where she feels out of place among the other—mostly white and affluent—students, and conflicted about her crush on a boy who is white. Later in the book, the topic of gentrification comes up, as do predatory home loans. These details ground the characters and their struggles in a recognizable world.

Janelle M. Williams

Zahra’s family is African American, tracing its roots to Mississippi and, before that, to “enslaved people, dark-skinned folks with thick plaited hair and an ingeniousness that allowed them to find secrets in scraps…,” as Zahra puts it when she imagines her ancestors. She grew up in Atlanta, in her Gram’s ranch-style house, with her brother, her parents, and her Uncle Richard. Zahra’s mother is a lawyer who has dedicated her life to politics and civil rights—at the expense, Zahra feels, of being a good mother to her and Derrick. The disappearance of Derrick brings the family together again under Gram’s roof, where they are forced to confront their problems with each other and end up uncovering secrets.

Sammie is from a Trinidadian family—as a child she was sent to New York to live with her Uncle Trey and her grandparents, Mother Ma and Daday, who had already immigrated. Sammie’s parents never followed. The first time that Zahra comes to Sammie’s East Harlem apartment for a tutoring session, “this family reminds her of her own, just more functional, more together.” 

Zahra is drawn to the warmth in Sammie’s family. She also has a burgeoning attraction to Trey. After initially resisting Zahra’s help, Sammie ends up viewing her as a kind of older-sister—and seeks her opinion, not just on her college essay, but on general life matters as well. However, there is another (magical) force bringing these two women together: gypsy moths that follow them around and sing popular songs like “Dancing in the Streets” by Martha and the Vandellas. Zahra and her brother have been hearing these moths all their lives, but Sammie doesn’t notice them at first; she just feels like something or someone is watching her. These moths, it turns out, play an important role in the novel’s ending. 

Ultimately, I enjoyed the richly drawn characters in Gone Like Yesterday, but I felt that the novel could have benefitted from tighter pacing and a more singular focus. For the first 100 pages—nearly a third of the book—we are in NYC with Zahra and Sammie, learning about their lives there and meeting supporting characters, most of whom don’t reappear in the book. The ones who do continue to appear—though only through text messages and phone calls—are Zahra’s college-prep client Sophia and her mother, Mrs. Jacobs. And their only purpose in the story seems to be to provide a white, privileged, and clueless counterpoint to Sammie and her family. The real action—and the main story—don’t begin to unfold until Zahra, Sammie, and Trey reach Atlanta. 

And yet, once in Atlanta, new storylines and themes appear, making the story feel crowded and unfocused. After so much build-up around Derrick’s disappearance and Zahra’s feelings of guilt because of the emotional and physical distance she’s put between herself and the brother she was once inseparable from, I found the resolution of these conflicts disappointing. We see Trey and Zahra sharing a few kisses in Atlanta, but we don’t see them falling for each other. And we don’t  get Zahra’s interiority in relation to this aspect of her life—though we get it about plenty of other things. Zahra seems dissatisfied with her career and life in New York, but it isn’t clear what she wants instead. And the themes of gentrification, redlining, and predatory lending are introduced so late in the story that there isn’t enough time to fully explore them. I wish the novel had narrowed its focus to Zahra and Sammie’s character arcs and the search for Derrick—or had swapped one of those for the story of a family threatened by foreclosure, and told how they try to save their house and connect with each other. 

That said, Williams’s debut shows plenty of promise, and I will be looking out for future novels from her.