This book was simply amazing. Rivers Solomon is an expert of the slow burn. Each word precisely measured to maximize tension and draw you deeper into the story.
Imagine yourself at 16, full of rebellion, questions, and if you’re Vern, also pregnant by a man you were forced to marry. Raised in Cainland, a place apart from the rest of the world, yet she had full knowledge of its existence. Taught to hate the outside world, Vern came to despise her home as well, the lies and secrets. So, heavy with child she fled into the woods and gave birth to Howling and Feral, and there she made a new home. This much alone would be too much for some to handle, but not for Vern. On top of all that, she also had to contend with the person hunting her down and the mysterious changes of her body which are equally wonderful and frightening.
Some of the themes explored in Sorrowland are human experimentation, the exploitation and abuse of black bodies, and gender fluidity.
Vern struggles with her sexuality throughout the book. At every stage of her life she must contend with other people’s idea of her and her body. As an adolescent men saw her only as a piece of meat, something all women, black women especially, have had to deal with. She was forced into marriage as a teenager simply because she was no longer a virgin. It also served as a deterrent, because Vern was attracted to women. Her first crush, Lucy, left Cainland and her next crush, Ollie, turned out to be a fraud. It’s not until she meets Gogo that she is finally loved and accepted for who she is.
I love how this book challenges the way we see gender. The children have no concept of male and female. They fully accept that their father is a woman, no matter how odd that might seem to others. Vern herself was raised and treated as female, although she is described as intersex. Her lover Gogo, is winkte or two-spirit, a Native American term. If you’ve ever watched HBO’s Lovecraft Country, you might be at least a little familiar with the idea.
Vern is strong willed, resourceful and stubborn. She doesn’t trust easily but considering her upbringing, I don’t blame her. This is one of her biggest obstacles. Born with albinism and raised in a reclusive alternative community (coughs* cult) she didn’t receive proper medical care and as a result she’s nearly blind and illiterate because of her nystagmus. So, unable to find and read information on her own, she must find people she can trust. Solomon has crafted a sinister situation for Vern. If she trusts the wrong person at the wrong time it could spell the end for her and her children, but failing to trust the right person would be just as detrimental.
Immediately after birthing the twins, Vern is chased through the woods by the fiend, someone sent by Cainland to bring her back, and a pack of wolves. She later realizes that the wolves were just a haunting, visions that Cainites often experience. As her body changes the hauntings become more frequent and vivid. In Cainland she and the other citizens received regular shots, a sort of detox, but Vern suspects these shots are in fact the cause of the hauntings. She’s right it turns out. Cainland was simply a large scale experiment and they were all lab rats.
These illegal experiments on unwitting black people is nothing new for America. Since slavery black people have been forced to endure this sort of thing. One of the most famous examples is the Tuskegee experiment. As a result, black Americans have a serious mistrust of medical experiments. The recent COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example of this.
In the end, Vern is able to use her mysterious power to save the Cainites and bring national attention to the atrocities committed there by the government. By her actions she becomes a reluctant hero, this young woman who was kept in the dark and abused is far too many ways.
The mystery of Cainland is a tangled web of lies, fanatical propaganda and shadowy government dealings. Solomon keeps you guessing until the last second. Unapologetically black, queer, and down right weird. I loved each and every page.
I received an ARC via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.