Updated: Oct 24, 2022
Sorrowland, by Rivers Solomon (2021)
The first 3/4 of this book were pretty masterful, in my opinion. The final 1/4 - heavy-handed.
The story centers around Vern, a 15 year old, pregnant, albino Black girl, who has just run away from the abusive, all-Black Cainland cult and it's Reverend leader, who is also her (much older) husband. Cainland plies it's disciples with drugs and encourages the "hauntings" - horrible waking nightmares - that followers experience, under the guise of ridding them of the white man's influence.
One evening Vern escapes into the woods, gives birth to twins Howling & Feral all on her own, and lives alone with them in the forest for four years. The twins learn alongside their mother how to survive in the woods. But Vern is hunted and haunted by something she calls "The Fiend" - whether it is human or beast, she doesn't know, but she knows it is somehow connected to her time at Cainland. Trying to take care of her children and avoid capture, Vern also has to deal with another odd phenomena - her body is rapidly changing. She finds she has inhuman strength, her skin begins to change texture, and she has increasingly real hallucinations that make her question reality.
Eventually, Vern hooks up with an old friend's aunt, and her niece GoGo, who become her surrogate family. Together, they all work towards the common goal of keeping Vern and the children safe, while looking more into the history of Cainland, it's potential connection to the government, and the strange physical changes that are beginning to make Vern unrecognizable.
This book is based in present-day America, right along with our history of government-sanctioned experimentation on Black bodies, for example the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. It touches on issues of race and mental health, and proves an interesting social and political commentary on the brutality with which we treat our marginalized citizens. In addition, sexual identity and gender are compellingly explored - Vern is an intersex lesbian, Gogo is a trans woman, Vern's mother is bisexual, and Howling & Feral are never concretely labeled as male or female.
Everything above this paragraph - I loved. But as I said at the beginning, the latter 1/4 of the book was problematic. It became convoluted, very bizarre, and the pace dragged. The plot, and the messages the reader is meant to take away, felt manufactured instead of a natural progression of the characters' arcs, all offered up with clumsy, overbearing text. Sadly, I think Solomon got lost, and ended up distorting what was a really poignant and beautifully written story.
Still giving it a solid 3 stars though, because the rest was so good, and I really enjoyed the sci-fi-esque story of physical transformation.
UP NEXT: A Cosmology of Monsters, by Shaun Hamill