Rivers Solomon’s SORROWLAND is a gothic horror tale that shows how injustices imposed on Black Americans change us. Sweeping and expansive in its ambition, it’s a novel that crosses genres and ideas, resulting in something darkly enchanting and oddly salient. SORROWLAND is anchored by an intriguing central character: Vern, a young woman who is haunted and on the run after leaving a Black separatist cult. She is 19, and pregnant; the father of the child is the leader of the cult. She hides out in a nearby forest, where she gives birth to twins, Howling and Feral. As the plot unfolds, Vern is hounded by the U.S government, individuals connected to the cult and supernatural creatures. A mysterious fungus is growing inside of her, resulting in a slow metamorphosis that is intertwined with the past. She finds herself fleeing from it all.
The significance of Cain, the base of the cult and the compound where Vern grows up, is an analogy for ideas of Black liberation. Cain is a cocoon of sorts, a shelter fashioned from movements such as the Black Panthers to tackle the injustices of slavery, racism and inherited trauma. Its founders intended to make a world free from the influence of white society, specifically designed to facilitate Black independence. Removed from the functions of capitalism, Cain fosters Black cultures while protecting its people. Its inhabitants rely on their own ingenuity for survival and live off the land. Its children are named after great historical figures such as Harriet, Malcolm and Martin. There are no policemen in Cain, Solomon’s nod to the growing call for abolition in modern times. But there is a flaw in its ideology: it is suffocated by an archaic Christian influence. Girls are not educated in the same way boys are, queerness is considered a major problem created by white men. Women are encouraged to submit to their husbands and heterosexuality is the norm. Solomon does a fine job in animating the repressive elements of Cain, spotlighting an inherent problem shared by movements that claim to have a solution for human survival: it is impossible to create paradise without compromise.
Vern stands at a specific intersectionality: she is an albino intersex Black girl who, growing up in a cult, has experienced sexual trauma. She is othered in a tumultuous world. Cain may have begun as a Black nationalist commune but is soon infiltrated by various U.S. government agencies. It turns into a funded project that reflects the manipulations of white nationalism in Black movements. This makes Vern the physical embodiment of America’s atrocious history of experiments on unconsenting Black bodies. In the book, we meet her aged 15, and her story acutely demonstrates the painful situation faced by Black girls everywhere: although she is still a child, she is not granted a freedom from adult burdens, and is cognisant of the structural cruelties that await her. Solomon builds context for this with a subtle hand. Abrasive and rebellious, Vern hides in the forest to ensure her survival and that of her twins. The sobering responsibility of motherhood, especially for a young girl on the run, exacerbates the precariousness of her situation. Vern exists in perpetual survival mode. She clothes her babies in animal skins, takes refuge in makeshift shelters and hunts when necessary. Along the way she battles poor eyesight, skin that becomes increasingly sensitive to light and terrifying ‘hauntings’: hallucinations that follow her like shadows. Macabre enemies watch and tail her, including an entity she refers to as ‘the fiend’ who leaves disturbing offerings wrapped in baby clothes for her to discover. As the book progresses, the fiend gets uncomfortably close to reaching its target.
SORROWLAND is a highly atmospheric, addictive read. It is steeped in Afro-futurism and influenced by the world-building of Octavia Butler, the mother of Black sci-fi. More recently, the work of Victor LaValle comes to mind in the way Solomon incorporates the tonal inflections of both old and new worlds. It is a gripping thriller, infused with themes of nature, repression and memory. The subjects of queer love, self-definition and escapism also ripple through this tale which has folkloric characteristics ingrained within its DNA. Solomon has an interesting grasp on form: the vastness, ambitions and tonal amalgamations of the story never detract from Vern’s epic journey. We are anchored by her narrative and deeply invested in this girl who boldly contends with what life throws at her in order to protect herself and her babies. There is also a strange manifestation happening within her: a foreign entity, which may be the result of regular vitamin D shots given to her back at the cult’s compound, fills her with great strength. The unruly fungus unfurling inside makes her feel invincible; she starts to grow an exoskeleton and wings, but they cause her extreme pain.
Solomon reclaims queerness, sexuality and the meaning of life on the margins with a potent ferocity. Vern’s physical transformation ushers in a sexual liberation that she was unable to explore at Cain, and Solomon weaves in references to key texts in the queer modernist canon. There are several mentions of James Baldwin’s GIOVANNI’S ROOM, an important book for queer people. Lucy, Vern’s first crush at Cain, reads it to Vern, and so does her later lover. The embracing of queer bodies and appetites in GIOVANNI’S ROOM, which are often othered historically, is echoed as a prophetic reclamation in SORROWLAND. Solomon picks up the baton passed by Baldwin’s originally polemic text; they are defiant in celebrating Black queer existence by depicting its multiplicities. As Vern’s body continues to transform, so does her desire for sex with women, which is beautifully rendered by Solomon. Vern’s love is bold, feral and tender. Solomon debunks expectations of acceptable queerness and is unconcerned with catering to the expectations of traditional audiences. They are especially uninterested in the way that Blackness and queerness have been limited by the mainstream. Instead, Solomon creates their own rules for writing narratives that explore the fullness of Black queer life. SORROWLAND is a brilliantly strange, genre-defying work. Solomon may have nodded to the ancestors, but they have created a novel with its own unique powers that will live and breathe for generations to come.