Paula Guran Reviews Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

Sorrowland, Rivers Solomon (MCD 978-0-374-26677-6, $27.00 268pp, hc) May 2021.

Fifteen-year-old Vern Fields – abused, Black, pregnant, albino, nearly blind – escapes cult compound the Blessed Acres of Cain and its leader, her husband, fleeing into a forest. There she gives birth to twin boys she names Howling and Feral. She is prepared to survive in the wild by her upbringing in Cain­land: founded by Black nationalists in the ’60s who wanted their people to renounce white civilization, Cainites are taught how to live off the land. Vern and her children survive four years in the woods despite “hauntings” – visions and hallucinations connected to Cainland that are alarmingly real – and pursuit by a human fiend who terrorizes her by leaving the corpses of animals with the accoutrements of infants for Vern to discover. Vern’s body begins changing in frightening ways and the hauntings intensify. A disastrous confrontation with the fiend is the final impetus for her to return to the outside world. Even as Vern learns to trust two other humans – Native Americans Bridget and her niece Gogo – she begins to discover devastat­ing truths about herself and Cainland, while all their lives are threatened by unimaginable evil.

This overly simplistic description is true enough, but Sorrowland is much, much more than a harrowing thriller/horror story touching on historic tragedies and current injustices. The character of Vern is remarkably real. Certain there is “no place on earth free of injustice,” she is a rebel by nature and choice:

Vern wished 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.

Ferociously maternal, she’s also a child, “not so lost yet in teenagehood that she thought her­self wise.” The reader cannot help becoming deeply involved with Vern, her precocious chil­dren, and, eventually, Gogo and her aunt. Vested, we make the twisting, revelatory journey as Vern evolves. Solomon skillfully and passionately weaves the dreadful threads of history into their fiction, making connections of the personal to larger issues of the past appropriation of African-American lives and bodies that remains a form of continuing slavery.

There are many levels here, but for me the ultimate theme is transformation and the hope that change can impart.

Fierce, unsettling, moving, entrancing, inci­sive, and, at times, profound, Sorrowland is a must-read masterpiece, but surely far from the last Solomon will achieve.

Paula Guran has edited more than 40 science fiction, fantasy, and horror anthologies and more than 50 novels and collections featuring the same. She’s reviewed and written articles for dozens of publications. She lives in Akron OH, near enough to her grandchildren to frequently be indulgent.

This review and more like it in the May 2021 issue of Locus.

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