In US author Rivers Solomon’s previous two novels, themes of memory and repression shaped stirring sci-fi narratives. Now comes Sorrowland, a gothic techno-thriller in which the trauma of the past is parried with defiance and a thirst for understanding, as embodied by an electrifying young hero.
Vern is 15 years old and heavily pregnant when she escapes from an American cult known as the Blessed Acres of Cain. Hidden in the forest, she gives birth to twins named Howling and Feral, and spends the next four years there, hunting and gathering, dressing her babes in animal skins and bedding down in makeshift shelters.
Vern has an abrasive, masochistic streak. Determined to “make every moment of her life a rebellion”, she’s also daring, patient, smart as blazes, which is just as well because she’s up against plenty, including debilitatingly poor eyesight, albinism that makes her skin hypersensitive, and “hauntings” – fearsome hallucinations that have followed her from the cult’s compound. Also on her tail is someone she dubs “the fiend”, intent on scaring her from her hiding place with ghoulish offerings garbed in baby clothes.
Vern becomes half animal out there, all instinct and need. Something else is stirring deep within her too: a foreign body that she senses has to do with the regular vitamin shots administered back on the compound. It confers superhuman strength and the ability to heal overnight, and she feels invincible until she begins sprouting an exoskeleton and is wracked by pain. Finalmente, fears for her health drive Vern’s small family from the forest, forcing her to acquire new skills in a quest for answers.
When it comes to Cainland, Vern grows to see that its founding motives had some merit, enabling black people to help one another. She’s unable to bring this same nuanced view to bear on life in the outside world. “The primary freedoms this nation protected were the ones to own and annihilate,” she declares. por suerte, she soon finds another sanctuary, and with it the healing ministrations of a Native American woman.
A stirring sense of the epic animates this striking novel. Anything that remains of Vern’s faith is rooted in the vastness of life, and when she meets her nemesis, it’s only fitting that it should turn out to be a creature “so looming that being next to it was like falling”.
This capaciousness is echoed in the sheer range of Sorrowland’s timely preoccupations. It’s about escape, self-acceptance and queer love. It’s about genocide and the exploitation of black bodies, self-delusion and endemic corruption, motherhood and inheritance. Its frame of reference is generous – in some ways, it’s clearly rooted in Afrofuturism, owing plenty to Octavia Butler, but it nods as well to Giovanni’s Room, Robin Hood and folklore from multiple cultures.
Sounds like a lot? Es, and you’ll certainly find extraneous material here, including a motel-room orgy attended by a couple of ghosts. And yet Solomon matches her ambition with a propulsive plot whose intense conviction and sheer vitality make up for any shaky logic where the likes of colonising fungi and resurrections are concerned.
As for memory, ensuring that past wrongs don’t go forgotten isn’t enough for Vern, OMS, though still a girl by the novel’s end, has taken ownership of the adrenaline, anger and appetite that drive her. Solomon’s audacity lies in imagining at least some of those wrongs not only remembered but put right, and in dreaming up powers potent enough to make it so.