SORROWLAND by Rivers Solomon (BOOK REVIEW)
“Sometimes it seemed like there was a creature inside her, lurking, trying to bust through her bones, a demented birth. Mam would be a pile of skin and guts and skeleton, and the creature, clean and bright, would never know that she used to be a mam.”
Rivers Solomon’s Sorrowland (2021) is a powerful and vital work of speculative fiction, one with its roots in the gothic past but with tendrils reaching out beyond the limits of the New Weird. Sorrowland explores the United States’ horrendous history of systematic racial oppression, using the modes of the gothic, the fairy tale and science fiction to show us the atrocities of history in a viscerally immediate light. Solomon explores these themes with depth and sensitivity, and imagines new avenues of hope and resistance, ways in which faer characters can find some kind of love and happiness free from the shackles of white supremacy. Uncompromising, haunting and unforgettable, Solomon has crafted a modern masterpiece of fantastic fiction.
Vern is an albino black woman on the run from black nationalist commune Blessed Acres of Cain. She escapes to give birth to her twin children Howling and Feral in the woods. Fending for herself and protecting her family from the fiend sent from Cain to track them down drive her to increasingly impressive physical feats, and soon she discovers that her body is undergoing a transformation. Seeking her childhood friend Lucy, also an escapee from the Blessed Acres of Cain, Vern meets Aunt Bridget and Gogo, and starts to overcome some of her trauma and make human connections. However, Vern’s physical transformation is becoming more extreme, the visions and hauntings that have followed her from Cainland become more intense, and the fiend is still on her trail. Vern must uncover the hidden history of the Blessed Acres of Cain in order to understand what is happening to her and protect her family.
Sorrowland is at its heart a dissection of the horrendous treatment of black people by the United States. Solomon unflinchingly explores how white supremacy has shaped the US’s history and continues to shape its present. The novel draws a line through slavery and the genocide of Native American peoples through to CIA infiltration of groups like the Black Panthers through the country’s long history of unconsented medical experimentation on black bodies. Vern’s hauntings allow her to experience the full horror of the past, from the abuse of slavery to KKK lynchings. However she soon finds out the extent to which the legacy of white supremacy has shaped her life – the Blessed Acres of Cain may have started out as a black nationalist commune, but has since been infiltrated by various government agencies and has been used for decades as a site of highly unethical medical experimentation, of which Vern is the triumphant end result. Solomon does not hold back in faer depiction of these horrors, nor in making clear the links between the historical atrocities and the present day racism faced by faer characters.
Dealing with such heavy subject matter, Sorrowland is a profoundly discomforting book, and it’s very much meant to be.
The darkness of the book’s subject matter is contrasted with Solomon’s gorgeous prose. Solomon uses a register that evokes the gothic, the fairy tale and the mythic, creating powerful and unsettling images with a vivid intensity. However, the novel could not be further from the airy fairy twee; Solomon firmly anchors the novel in Vern’s embodied experience, bloody and raw. Vern is an incredible character, one who disrupts all the binaries constructed by white supremacy to control her, black and white, male and female, straight and gay. Reverend Sherman, the cult-like leader of Cainland, has taught her to be ashamed of her sexuality, but over the course of the novel, she begins the long process of overcoming her social programming and forms a loving relationship with Gogo, a trans woman of mixed Native American and black heritage. As Vern’s bodily transformation progresses, she transcends the boundaries between human and animal, animal and fungi, life and death. As the story progresses, Vern offers hope for a new posthuman way of being that is capable of transcending the horrors of the past and the present. None of which is to say that Vern is perfect by any means. Part of what makes her such a compelling character is the fact that the reader is placed right in the centre of her constant struggle to heal from her abusive, traumatic past and to overcome her violent tendencies. Vern has been shaped by the trauma she has lived through, but her journey is about her finding healthy ways to overcome it, despite the constant difficulties she faces as a marginalised character in an oppressive society.
With its exploration of the bitter harvest of evils long present in the land, Sorrowland is in many ways an updating of the gothic for 21st century concerns. But with its themes of transformation and body horror it shares much in common with the New Weird as well. Much like faer characters, Solomon’s writing refuses to be contained by binaries or genre distinctions. The novel features many scenes of intense and unsettling horror, but also of gloriously strange rebirth. Vern transforms into a wondrous, frightening creature, with aspect insectile and fungal, able to communicate through the mycelial network to the land itself, to others that she can infect, and to the dead themselves. Vern’s new body is a celebration of hybridity, a confluence in which the borders between plant, animal, fungus, alive and dead can all be dissolved. Similarly, Solomon’s incredible writing has grown from the fairy tale, the mythic, the gothic and the Weird but emerges as a wondrous new creation, uniquely adapted for unravelling the complexities of existence in the 21st century. Sorrowland is simultaneously a haunting, a revenant from the USA’s troubled past, and a premonition, a bleak yet hopeful vision of how we may overcome the shackles of the past and the present. As such it is a vital and crucial example of what speculative fiction is capable of achieving.