Rivers Solomon’s latest novel Sorrowland, a gothic techno-thriller is a meditation on racial trauma, bodily autonomy, sexual repression and the inheritance of identity. The novel brings the violent racist past (and present) of the US up against a radical defiance embodied in its protagonist.
Vern is an albino Black intersex teenager who escapes a Black separatist cult, the Blessed Acres of Cain, while heavily pregnant with twin boys she names Howling and Feral. For four years, she raises her boys in the woods while surviving threats both external and internal. In addition to the hazards of living in the woods, she must also evade a “fiend” who attempts to smoke her out of the woods by killing animals and dressing them up in baby clothes. But that’s not all. Her body is taken over by a “traveller” – an infection she suspects of causing eerily-realistic visions or “hauntings.” What she does know: all the threats in her life can be traced back to her past at Cainland. In a move that exemplifies her incorrigible courage, she leaves the forest to find answers.
As its core, Sorrowland is a biting dissection of the long violent history of settler colonialism in the United States. While Solomon references the genocide and forced sterilizations of Native American people, KKK lynchings, and the environmental damage caused by the introduction of new species by colonizers, the book primarily focuses on the history of medical experimentation on Black people’s bodies – Vern being a result of one such experiment at Cainland.
As Vern recognizes the extent to which Cainland, and by extension, racism has shaped her life, we begin to see a level of growth in her intellectual approach to that influence. She begins the books as a child bride traumatized by the sexual and emotional abuse she suffered in her marriage to Father Sherman, the cult leader. She wishes “to make every moment of her life a rebellion, not just against the Blessed Acres of Cain but the world in all its entirety. Nothing would be spared her resistance.” Her journey leads her to genuine human connection, the value of interdependence, and sexual liberation. She finds a chosen family in Bridget and Gogo. And as she comes to understand the revolutionary beginnings of Cainland, she also comes to terms with her own rootedness to that community. A fifteen year old girl who would forget her children for a one night stand becomes a nineteen year old woman who can harness her ability to nurture in defiance of the wrongs done to her community. Solomon’s genius is that in Vern, fae embody a nurturing force that is truly revolutionary in its ability to reverse the violence of white America.
If I have a gripe with this novel, it is that it needs more – more for the supporting characters and more for the themes it touches. While Vern is a fully realized and beautifully rendered character, every other character only exists to serve her story. Her children become extensions of her own insecurities and are conveniently removed from the story to free her up for the climax and Bridget facilitates this removal in her role as little more than glorified child care. The HIV/AIDS crisis gets but a nod and Sacred Stone gets used as a resume bullet to establish Gogo’s medical credentials. Solomon takes up too much for the world fae create to hold and develop.
Overall, Sorrowland is a testament to the power of revolutionary rigour. Extending the gothic aesthetic to the present day and combining it with elements of the fairytale, Afrofuturism, and speculative fiction, the book dares to imagine that USian racial violence can be reversed. It is an admirable project and a worthy addition to Solomon’s ouvre.