"A triumphant, genre-bending breakout novel from one of the boldest new voices in contemporary fiction 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. Rivers Solomon’s Sorrowland is a genre-bending work of Gothic fiction. Here, monsters aren’t just individuals, but entire nations. It is a searing, seminal book that marks the arrival of a bold, unignorable voice in American fiction."
I picked up Sorrowland as an audiobook on a whim, just looking for something to listen to so I could read while working on some projects, and boy was I not prepared for what I got myself into. First, as an audiobook, I need to say the narration was immaculate. Karen Chilton’s performance really tied the whole thing together and fit the tone of the novel perfectly.
Sorrowland begins with Vern, an albino, intersex girl of about 15, giving birth to twins in the woods after she has escaped a compound known as The Blessed Acres of Cain (AKA Cainland), a black-power-movement-turned-religious-cult. There in the forest, Vern lives off the land, caring for her twins with the intent to raise them without any of the influences of the outside world, all the while trying to avoid the clutches of Cainland, which refuses to let her go so easily. Over the course of four years, Vern begins to undergo inhumanly changes, leaving her with a trail of questions that lead right back to the community she escaped. The answer, of course, is so much bigger than imagined, with the true villain revealing itself as the United States government.
This is a book that’s written to make you uncomfortable. It looks at the history of the U.S. and the country’s crimes against black and indigenous people with quite the critical and unforgiving eye. Vern’s thoughts and feelings, too, are so raw, so angry, that it was hard to keep listening at times, yet the strangeness of it all, the way it invites you, just as it invites Vern, to seek out the answers and embrace them are what kept me “turning the page,” so to speak.
Vern herself is a wonderfully flawed and unique character. She’s unprepared to be a mother, and so does her best with what she’s given: wilderness survival skills and the desire to be as contrary as she can to how she was raised (and starts by naming her children Howling and Feral). She battles constantly with deciding how she feels about the outside world and about herself and her sexuality versus how she was taught the world is and how she ought to feel and behave. She is a strong character, but in the way that people force themselves to be strong so as not to appear weak. There were many times that I found her frustrating, from her constant pessimism to her stubbornness and refusal to let down her walls and allow others into her life and accept help. But there were also times I felt for her, like when she’s torn between the want to be selfish and the need to care for her children, and her longing to locate the whereabouts of her best friend, Lucy, whom she believes escaped Cainland a few years before her own escape. She is overall a character with a lot of trauma.
As for the other characters, I particularly enjoyed Howling and Feral. Over the course of the story we get to see the twins develop and how they interact with the outside world when Vern inevitably has to introduce them to it. While Feral embraces the joys of “electricity food,” Howling is a bit more skeptical of the new things around him, at first preferring the comforts of the forest he already knows. The differences in the twins extend far beyond their reactions to the world, however. Feral, like his mother, is albino and like her he experiences the struggles involved with that. This gives them something to bond over, while it leaves Howling to feel a bit left out from his mother’s love. Perhaps due to this, Howling becomes a bit more rebellious than his brother, especially as he bears witness to some of the darker sides of the transformations Vern goes through. This above all I think was my favorite element of the plot and I caught myself worrying over and over about how Howling and Vern’s relationship would eventually turn out.
While I’m not sure any one sentence I write could fully capture the whole of Sorrowland, overall I found it to be an intense and powerful work about the struggles of finding oneself amidst the pressures put forth by a society one is not accepted in, and by not fitting in with those one is expected to call their kin. This is a book I definitely recommend.