Book review: Yesterday is History by Kosoko Jackson

(cover image courtesy Sourcebooks)

Figuring out exactly where you belong is a challenge for everyone when they’re growing up.

Caught in up an equally terrifying and exciting swirl of hope, uncertainty, hormones, emotional ups-and-downs and endless possibilities, figuring out the next step to that magical place where you’ll feel right at home, can feel like a task beyond your reckoning.

Think then how much of a challenge 17-year-old gay Black teenager Andre Cobb, protagonist of Kosoko Jackson’s debut novel, Yesterday is History, faces.

Mere weeks after a liver transplant from an anonymous saved his life, one ravaged by cancer that has thrown him off his hitherto concrete-certain track to a long hoped-for career as a doctor – well, not exactly, but by interrupting his high school study plans, everything else has been thrown into chaos, something Andre isn’t used to – Andre finally feels like everything is settling down and getting back to whatever the hell this new normal is.

That is, until he goes to lay down on his bed one night, only to find himself falling onto dewy grass in a suburban Boston in … 1969.

Yes, Andre has time travelled unexpectedly back fifty years ago, but while he is convinced, being the logical, empirical medical professional wannabe that he is, that he must be in some sort of coma and imagining an alternate reality, it soon becomes clear after he meets Michael, who lives in the home Andre’s parents will one day buy, that what is happening to him is very real indeed.

“‘So, that went well!’

My father is always optimistic. I think it has something to do with his profession. Or maybe the way he grew up. He’s one of those people who was raised to think that the world is what you make it and that people are inherently good. And because of that, he’s always cheery and always able to see the bright side.

And though I love my father, his constant joy is nauseating when all I want to do is go to sleep.

‘I have a good feeling about this,’ he says, still annoyingly optimistic.

Kill me.” (P. 3)

But come on! Time travel doesn’t exist … does it?

Turns out for those genetically gifted with the ability to defy the accepted laws of time and space, you can, and before he knows Michael is getting to know the very rich parents of his donor, Dave, and being tutored in the ins-and-outs of time travel by Blake, the surviving younger brother with a whole lot of grief and familial pressure resting none too lightly on his 18-year-old shoulders.

How’s that for upsetting the “where do I belong?” applecart?

Suddenly Andre is caught between two equally beautiful young men – 1969 Michael who is calm, passionate and willing to defy expectations in a way compliant Andre can’t even imagine, and current day Blake, whose initial surliness soon gives way to incipient attraction and flirting – while he lies to his parents and best friend Isobel about his whereabouts, and tries to work out where on earth his once beautifully mapped out life is heading.

Yesterday is History is a pitch-perfect story that might have a rewardingly out-there premise but which executes its exploration of young love, upset possibilities and consequences good and bad with compelling, emotionally affecting aplomb.

Kosoko Jackson (image courtesy official author Twitter account)

One thing working very much in Yesterday is History‘s favour is that Jackson, himself a gay man who has taken his own journey to a very good place in life, is that it makes its premise really work for the heartfelt and funny tale it tells with dialogue that is funny and smart and prose redolent with insight, empathy and sweet, assuring take on queer love.

It’s a tricky act melding an off-the-wall idea with real flesh-and-blood humanity but Jackson does it beautifully, with time travel acting as the catalyst for a whole lot of changes in Andre’s life, many of which he is ill-equipped to deal with, just as we all are at his age.

He may be a smart, direct and logical who is fazed by very little at the start of his extraordinary journey but as the story progresses, anchored by a realness that belies the premise on which it rests, he realises there’s a lot he has to learn about life, love and all the stuff that fills up our existence when we’re not looking.

Andre, admittedly, has more to deal than most kids his age, but at the heart of it, he is another young man figuring out who he is away from his parents, whether that’s career-wise, love-wise or study-wise, and summoning up the courage to be someone entirely different from who expected to be.

In a story that is equal parts fantastical, moving, funny and just plain clever, we see again and again how challenging it can be to chart your own course, especially when you’re bouncing between now and then, but how enticingly thrilling things might be if you do.

“‘But why can’t we’ I argue. ‘There is a line between abusing power and using it to make the world better, Mrs. McIntyre. You’re smart enough to know when not to cross that line.’

She chuckles, but it’s one of those chuckles that is filled with sadness instead of comedy.

‘Stronger men and women than me have thought that they could do exactly what you’re suggesting, Andre. And every time, they realize that they have done more harm than good. And it breaks them.'” (P. 245)

A heart pleasing deep dive into the human condition in its adult-nascent form, Yesterday is History is an absolute pleasure to read.

It manages to take you on a marvellously unique adventure, adding something pleasingly original to the time travel genre which may look beyond any kind of reinvention, big or small, while never once straying from an examination of what it means to lose what you always thought was locked in and certain, and find that maybe, just maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Yes, Andre’s journey is complicated by the most unusual of love triangles and true, not many people have to grapple with becoming accidental chrononauts after a liver transplant, but for all those extraordinary elements, Andre’s story is a very simple human one – we all want to be loved, to belong and feel like our lives matter, and Andre, of course, is no different.

Yesterday is History is an absolute joy to read, rich with heartfelt queer humanity, grief, loss, hope, vibrant humour, social commentary, ambition, doubt and fear and the most audaciously introduction to rethinking life’s priorities that anyone has had in a good long while, but at heart, a tale that is universal to all, one built around an achingly sweet and beautiful love story that simultaneously makes all the other stuff on the table of life make sense and not matter at all, because finally you belong and it feels better than you could ever have imagined.

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