Sorrowland – Book Review

Rivers Solomon (The Deep) returns with the gothic sci-fi type thriller Sorrowland, a contemporary genre-bending story that is both a brutal shock to the senses and a hauntingly poetic story of freedom and survival. With incredible poise and fearlessness, Rivers looks at the ugly history of racism in America and the marginalization of its people.

Here’s the summary…

Vern – seven months pregnant and desperate to escape the strict religious compound where she was raised – flees for the shelter of the woods. There, she gives birth to twins, and plans to raise them far from the influence of the outside world.

But even in the forest, Vern is a hunted woman. Forced to fight back against the community that refuses to let her go, she unleashes incredible brutality far beyond what a person should be capable of, her body wracked by inexplicable and uncanny changes.

To understand her metamorphosis and to protect her small family, Vern has to face the past, and more troublingly, the future – outside the woods. Finding the truth will mean uncovering the secrets of the compound she fled but also the violent history in America that produced it.

Imagine if all social commentary, and I mean mostly the bad stuff, was written in perfect prose, a melancholic type of sonnet that lures you to sleep with images of monsters swirling around your head and dreams of ancestral brutality…that’s Sorrowland.

With an opening scene that will shock you in its physicality, not since Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun has a book immediately and without remorse thrust you into a story so inhospitable, you’ll wonder if a happy ending is even possible. I of course won’t comment on the ending but if somehow you find yourself in need of a pick me up, Sorrowland might not be the book for you.

Having said that, I’m literally begging you to read this book, it’s just too good to pass up and will undoubtedly be in the conversation at the end of the year. The reasons are many but at its core, Sorrowland is a brutal accounting of the evil that we humans are capable of in its many forms, and its execution will often times leave you feeling defenseless, dependent, and alone. And then, before all is lost and nothing seems important anymore, Rivers gives us a small glimmer of hope.

Sorrowland is unflinching in its ability to immediately put you “in the room”, as it places you in Vern’s time and place better than just about any book I’ve read. And it’s not always comfortable, it’s rarely enjoyable in fact, but it’s always with pertinence. This is the definition of compelling and as such, will draw strong reactions on both sides I imagine.

This is only my second Rivers Solomon book, my first being The Deep, and it’s quite clear fae’s an ambitious storyteller, and luckily for us, there’s more than enough talent there to back it up. Fae writes in the margins which makes it’s hard to pin Sorrowland down or box it in, so, why bother? Gothic sci-fi/fantasy covers a lot of ground so if you’re the type of reader that needs to categorize something, go with that.

“This thing, what is it in itself, in its own constitution? What is its substance and material?”

-Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations

That line from the 16th Roman Emperor, reiterated perhaps somehow more famously by Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, refers to figuring out what a person’s inner nature is, to look beyond what you think you know. It seems to be an apt description of what Vern is experiencing in Sorrowland. Because transformation is the name of the game here, but maybe not in the way we think or necessarily perceive.

In simple terms, and as the summary states, something is happening to Vern, something inexplicable. Whether it’s her body’s fear mechanisms reacting to her and her children being hunted, or something more nefarious I won’t say, but out of the ordinary doesn’t begin to describe some of weird shit that’s occurring. Is it a fungus? An infection? A polypore? A teratoma? Or is it something else entirely, like say, alien in nature?

If there’s a muddled point to be found in Sorrowland, it’s definitely this aspect, which is to say what’s happening to Vern physically and why. Like I said, some “thing” is taking over her body, giving her superhuman abilities, and thanks to another character(s), begins to piece together that maybe she’s the product of intelligent design. But figuring out who the designer is, celestial or earthly, fundamentalist or government, is the mystery that needs figuring out. Vern’s changes don’t occur in superfluous ways, and Rivers doesn’t write parenthetically, so that means it should be clear and concise, but it isn’t, not for me anyways. Unless of course fae left it purposefully imprecise, in which case, fuck me I guess! Lol.

The shadow that hangs over much of this story and which provides the book’s primary antagonist is the Blessed Acres of Cain commune, led by a contemptible character named Reverend Sherman.

Based on no cult in particular, Cainland as those on the outside refer to it, is a pro-Black kibbutz from which Vern has escaped. Its leaders, both past and present, offer hope and freedom to those in desperate need of both or those looking to escape the repulsiveness of systematic white supremacy. But beneath that protective veil lays peculiarities, deviance, and cruelty. They employ control through mostly traditional means, instilling fear of the outside world, while wielding charisma and narcissism like a samurai wields a katana.

“If Black people planned to survive in a society antagonistic to their existence, they had to learn to be resourceful.”

For some, such as Vern and her friend Lucy, Cainland and its edicts become a prison, not a haven. But those that do get out learn quickly that surviving on the outside when you’ve been purposely kept ignorant of society’s daily machinations is tricky. And while not quite Stockholm syndrome, the longer she’s away from Cainland and the more she learns about its tenets, the more she understands that there’s a truth to be found there. That despite the hostile place it’s become, the outside world can be just as bad and just as cruel, so if it’s a choice between a system that has historically brutalized her people, or returning to the scene of the crime, well, let’s just say she’s exploring other options.

For the moment however, Vern is dealing with the six-inches in front of her face and one problem at a time. And like in the real-world, a return trip is an unfortunate but common result, and if Vern is going to make this escape stick, she’ll need help.

This aid comes in the form of Gogo, a Lakota Indian, and their aunt Bridget, herself part of the Oglala tribe. Bridget, who helped Vern’s friend Lucy on the outside once, takes in Vern and her sons Howling and Feral just the same. Between the perilous journey, several violent encounters I won’t mention, and this mysterious thing happening to her, Vern is in rough shape and in need of medical attention. Cainites were taught not to trust hospitals so it’s up to Gogo, who has a field medical background, to gain her trust.

Gogo does more than heal Vern physically however, they becomes a conduit to a world that was kept from Vern most of her life. They introduce her to many of life’s complexities, both the bold and the beautiful, including helping Vern understand identity in a way she never thought possible. Their relationship is more than just an awakening for Vern, it’s an endless possibility.

Sorrowland is very much a book of characters and when you exist apart from society, when you live outside the margins, well, you tend to meet a variety of folks. Rivers understands this perfectly well and populates faer story accordingly, presenting us a diverse cast that is as wonderfully three dimensional as the story. As such, the representation in Sorrowland checks a lot of boxes without ever once feeling like it’s checking a lot of boxes.

As for the world-building, it’s a contemporary novel so the settings aren’t fantastical in nature but are nonetheless very dark and visually driven, with the woods and surrounding area providing most of the tension. Indeed, the descriptors fae uses are very effective as all five of your senses will get a workout, each one meant to trigger memory, pleasure, fear, or nostalgia. Sorrowland is very much a shock to the senses.

The bottom line is there are little to no punches pulled in Sorrowland, every bit of joy is sucked from the ether with brutality, violence, and tragedy, with ties to both the past and present. But Rivers is challenging the reader in ways most don’t, and when you read so many books each year, when you can plot an entire book after reading only one chapter, man it’s nice to not have a clue until the last word on the last page is read.

I left so much out I wouldn’t even know where to begin but this review is meant to be a non-spoiler one so, understand that I’ve barely scratched the surface here. Besides, it’s so fiendishly abstract, I’m not sure I could explain it well enough anyways, not if I was looking to recommend this book to someone, which I vehemently do. You don’t read Sorrowland as much as you experience it, you smell the blood, feel the heat, and itch the scabs. This book will stick with you like dirt under your fingernails, and you’ll taste the earth every time you take a bite.

It’s wonderful.

Sorrowland is out now, to order a copy click HERE!