In 'Sorrowland,' The Story Gets Lost In The Forest
Rivers Solomon's Sorrowland tells a tale of how the horrors inflicted upon Black Americans warp and change us. However, an overreliance on atmospherics at the expense of basic building blocks weakens the overall story and themes.
I dove into Sorrowland ready to be enraptured by it. I'm drawn to gothic horror narratives. I spend an inordinate amount of time listening to podcasts about cults. I'm a fan of Solomon's work; faer The Deep, alongside the band clipping., and An Unkindness of Ghosts are painful, beautifully composed reads. (Solomon uses fae/faer pronouns.)
The novel's focal point is Vern, described by back matter as "a hunted woman." She is on the run after escaping from a Black separatist cult. She gives birth to the twins Howling and Feral, fathered by the current cult leader; what follows is Vern's metamorphosis as she is chased by people connected to the cult and the U.S. government, a physical, fungal transformation caused by the very past she's running from.
I quote the back matter because that's where the first problem with Sorrowland arises: Vern is never a woman; she is a child. She starts the book at 15 years old. She ends the book at 19. Since she is an escaped child bride, there is a large amount of character development surrounding childhood sexual trauma. (To Solomon's credit, much of this is implied, although there are sex scenes when she is 17 and still very much traumatized).
I understand that Vern — an albino intersex Black girl who grew up in a cult — would be perceived by terrible people as more grown than she is, but the narrative reads as if it wants you to see her as an adult ... until it's convenient. Reading frequently that seasons or months had passed, I believed she was in her twenties by the end of the story, until I found out otherwise in a moment of crisis. This is a useful shock tactic for those who see Black girls as too grown, but how is it supposed to feel for those readers who, like Vern, are used to receiving this treatment?
Characters talk around identities and truths, and Solomon frames this as powerful. Vern eventually describes herself as "in between" — but rejects her partner Gogo's offer to explain just what that means (due to one line that hints at this in the first chapter, and some research I did outside of the text, I know that Vern is intersex). Similar talking around truths lead to an incredibly painful approach to HIV/AIDS: Dead characters get a diagnosis and the living dance around it. Or a character knows they probably have it, they say, but won't get tested. When the only real identity elements that Vern celebrates in the climax are her membership in the cult and the fungal metamorphosis it caused, this is a problem.
The other word that Solomon dances around, in a paragraph worth of words? The racial slur described as "sounding like trigger." Structurally, this informs how you read which words/labels are claimed and which aren't, and as a fellow Black, genderqueer writer, I felt this was one of faer most painful rhetorical decisions.
A frequent lack of clarity compounded this problem. I'd read a line and wonder if Solomon was telling us a character secret or using a colloquial turn of phrase for a specific story reason. And then fae'd drop the subject for ten or even twenty chapters, and I'd accept I read too deeply — only for it to pop back up later, written as one character revealing the truth to another.
There's a version of this flaw in the plot as well. Solomon tells us about scenes between Gogo and Vern, or Vern and her children ... weeks ago, months ago ... and rather than seeing those scenes, which would have sold Vern's feelings for these characters, they serve mostly as references so that we know why Vern now has a particular skill, or why the children have had a leap in their progress. We get long quotes from books Gogo and Vern read (because I suppose if there is anything I have taken away from this story, it's that reading keeps the past away?) instead.
It may be odd to have gone so long without mentioning Vern's children, when the first chapter reads like it's about to fast-forward to the children grown, ready to be protagonists. I love the continued focus on Vern instead — theoretically. Vern forgets about the kids in her panicked bids to survive, and then realizes, and those were some of the best moments of the book. You remember the kids before Vern does, but you sympathize because Vern is unaccustomed to children and responsibility as a whole. It's difficult to keep that energy as the kids continue to be hidden away or shoved to the side so that the story can move on. Solomon tells us Vern loves her children — but fae rarely show us, apart from moments when Vern's fear of losing them moves the plot forward. More often than not, Vern's attempts at affection cause physical pain. The metaphor is clear and hammered home, but it doesn't go anywhere.
If anything, nearly every issue I had with this book comes from the places where I wanted more — more of Solomon hitting us with the truth, with the highs and lows of Vern's four years on the run.
Outside of her immediate family, most of Vern's allies exist as plot points. For the action to continue in the second half of the novel, an interesting new character becomes nothing more than a nanny and a dispenser of relationship advice, which was all the more problematic because she's Native American. Vern has a Native girlfriend as well, but her flaws and interests and tragedy exist solely to give Vern what she needs to move forward. The villains had far more scope, with grand military plans and ill-formed Black liberation speeches. Even when they were fixated on Vern, they at least had greater ambitions than just being stepping stones to get her to the next tragedy.
Solomon is a skilled writer, with imagery that sticks with me even with all my frustrations. Fae write about Black pain in its rawest form, and we feel Vern's raw, vulnerable state throughout all of Sorrowland. If anything, nearly every issue I had with this book comes from the places where I wanted more — more of Solomon hitting us with the truth, with the highs and lows of Vern's four years on the run. The real tragedy here is how much I ended up wondering about what ended up on the cutting room floor, rather than the blossoming horror on the page.
Danny Lore is a Black SF/F writer of prose and comics. They hail from Harlem and the Bronx.
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