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Solomon-Sorrowland-cover.jpgI think it could be argued that there are technically three overarching narratives at work in Rivers Solomon’s 2021 novel Sorrowland, each of which plays off the others in subtle and frequently quite complicated ways.

One narrative very clearly has a historical element and, at least in terms of metaphor, seems structured to elicit the experiences of a woman who escapes from slavery in pre-Civil War America and embarks on a lengthy cross-country voyage with her two children. This element of the novel follows its protagonist’s efforts to formulate a life and identity for herself that is entirely her own, even as she is relentlessly pursued by an enigmatic figure hired to track her down.

Another narrative is more contemporary, and concerns an insular religious compound styling itself (outwardly) after the various Black power movements of the 1970s, but which in fact simply deploys a hollow version of this earlier movement’s rhetoric to hide its own abuses of power. This community, which is led by the egotistical Reverend Sherman, is eventually established as a society composed exclusively of African American individuals who have fled the racism they face in modern American society, only to end up in an abusive compound whose totalitarian leader routinely deploys this threat of external violence as a method of solidifying his own authority and social control.

The third narrative is more overtly science-fictional, and follows a woman who escapes from a secret government facility that is covertly conducting illegal human experiments, all with the aim of seemingly creating super-soldiers to fight its wars. Fleeing across the country as the authorities pursue her, the protagonist searches for the only possible ally she can think of, even as her body undergoes a painful and horrifying transformation she doesn’t understand.

As varied as all of these narratives are, the most compelling aspect of Sorrowland’s plot is that each takes place simultaneously in the experiences of one single character, with the historically charged nature of the novel’s themes frequently being shown to exist alongside one another in ways that defy easy categorization.

The main character of Sorrowland is Vern, a woman who is introduced as she flees through a forest while being pursued by a figure known to her only as “the fiend.” In a disorienting yet fascinating opening chapter, Vern desperately works to stay ahead of the trained wolves which the fiend is using to track her down, doing everything she can to stay out of sight, even as her perceptions of reality at times seem to blur. Eventually, Vern is forced to halt her escape when she goes into labor, and gives birth to twin sons whom she briefly considers drowning in a nearby river so as to ensure that the fiend will not be able to harm them.

The brutal nature of this scene and its imagery evokes an older historical narrative. It’s quickly indicated that Vern is an African American woman fleeing from a guarded compound of some sort, and moreover that this compound (whatever its exact nature may be) seems to have been occupied exclusively by other African American people held there against their will. Meanwhile, even though the details of Vern’s broader situation do not come until much later in the novel, it’s also clear that the so-called “fiend” chasing Vern is white, and is working at the behest of whoever runs this compound to ensure her capture.

The result of this imagery is that it’s almost impossible not to view Vern’s story through a historical lens, and this is a quality of Solomon’s novel that repeats regularly as the plot develops. Even after it’s firmly established that the book is set in contemporary America, and that the heavily guarded compound from which Vern has escaped is in fact an abusive religious community known as “the Blessed Acres of Cain,” Vern’s situation still so closely mirrors that of someone fleeing from slavery during the 1800s that there are moments when key events in the novel almost seem to be taking place simultaneously in multiple centuries.

In any case, Sorrowland’s opening chapter ends with Vern coming face-to-face with the aforementioned fiend chasing her through the forest, and in desperation inflicting a grievous knife wound on this figure. With her attacker temporarily driven off, Vern retreats deeper into the wilderness with her two newborn children, vowing to raise her sons in total isolation from the outside world. Vern’s conviction that she should flee from all forms of human contact is so strong that when she considers the question of what to name her children, she briefly contemplates not naming them at all, before settling upon the words “Howling” and “Feral.”

Yet, when several years later the fiend reappears in Vern’s life, the altercation that results causes her, Howling, and Feral to flee the wilderness that has become their home. Driven this time into a modern world which Vern’s experiences at the Blessed Acres of Cain have taught her to fear, she is suddenly forced to fend for herself and her children as she slowly makes her way through a country whose authorities seem obsessed with hunting her down. With nowhere else to go, Vern settles on the only option she can think of, and embarks with her children on a harrowing cross-country voyage in search of the one individual besides herself to have ever escaped from the religious compound—a childhood friend named Lucy who vanished shortly before Vern did.

All the while, as Vern’s time outside of the Blessed Acres of Cain grows longer, she finds herself afflicted more and more frequently with “hauntings”—strange hallucinations in which she sees the bodies of the dead appear before her and reanimate, either acting out past traumas that occurred centuries prior, or attacking her in open acts of violence that inexplicably cause her real physical harm. Meanwhile, Vern’s own body begins to undergo a gruesome transformation, developing at first an inhuman strength, then regenerative properties allowing her to heal from severe wounds overnight, and then (still later) an indestructible exoskeletal armor comprised of mutated bone-matter bulging painfully just beneath her skin.

As Vern’s health deteriorates and her hauntings occur more and more frequently, she becomes increasingly convinced that something was implanted within her during her time at the Blessed Acres of Cain—a creature of some sort that she initially believes is consuming her from the inside out. This in turn makes Vern’s search for the one person other than herself to escape from the compound even more urgent. With time, Solomon uses this aspect of the story to explore themes of epistemic injustice, with Vern’s own struggles to understand the true nature of the facility in which she has lived all her life revealing the methods by which she and other members of the Blessed Acres of Cain were taught to regularly engage in severe acts of cognitive dissonance so as to avoid questioning the nature of this organization.

One recurring theme that Solomon explores throughout Sorrowland is the way in which numerous events in Vern’s life seem to regularly elicit broader histories and social issues. Probably the most overt example of this comes in the form of the Blessed Acres of Cain itself. Despite the imagery with which Vern’s escape from this compound is introduced, flashbacks initially establish this organization as at least in part a community styling itself as an overtly anti-racist and anti-imperialist religious group. Even the organization’s name is a reference to the congregation’s foundational ideology—a belief that the biblical figure of Cain was unjustly punished by the god of Christianity, and that this injustice is reflected in the enduring history of racism and imperialism.

As a result, depictions of Vern’s time at the Blessed Acres of Cain in part detail how members of this community work to formulate a sustainable way of life for themselves, renouncing all ties to contemporary American society due to its enduring complicity with regard to racism, and even going so far as to refuse to cultivate any plants brought to the North American continent by European colonists. It’s as a result of survival skills taught to Vern during her time in the Blessed Acres of Cain that she is able to endure in the wilderness with her two children.

However, the original ideology of the Blessed Acres of Cain (or, as Vern herself pejoratively dubs it, “Cainland”) is quickly negated by Vern’s own recollections of what day-to-day life in this compound is actually like. Despite having been founded decades earlier by figures who seem to have been earnest in their anti-racist and anti-imperialist politics, in modern times Cainland is led by the totalitarian figure of Reverend Sherman—a man who occupies a high-ranking position within this community that he in fact inherited from his own father, an individual who in turn created this position for himself after driving out Cainland’s founding members.

The result is that despite its name and ideology, the version of the Blessed Acres of Cain that Vern encounters in the story is not an anti-racist and anti-imperialist community, but instead a heavily guarded facility whose residents are routinely subjected to various forms of punishment and public shaming at Sherman’s behest. Often, Sherman’s actions as leader take the form of outright abuse (such as child marriages which he justifies via broad generalizations about life in an imagined version of Africa), or ritualized drownings meant to quell dissent that clearly constitute torture. Other times Sherman’s orders simply stray into the realm of the bizarre, such as when Vern’s narration reveals casually that Sherman has long required that everyone at Cainland (himself included) sleep forcibly strapped down to their beds.

Solomon’s exploration of the abuses taking place at Cainland seems to function in part as an examination of how initially anti-racist political institutions can and historically have been infiltrated and subverted by the prevailing political authorities, with the history of the Black Panther party and its infiltration by the FBI being directly referenced later on in the novel. Despite the ideals on which Cainland was founded, Vern’s experiences in this community reveal a society rife with sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, with Sherman himself continually being shown to be a figure whose own abusive authority is contingent on the danger that his followers face from the racist society existing beyond Cainland’s walls. That the fear with which Sherman controls Cainland is also shown by the novel to be well placed only makes his hold on this community all the more chilling. In the end, Cainland is depicted as a society which outwardly styles itself as being anti-racist, even as its very existence is built upon those same forces its original members sought to subvert.

The other manner in which Sorrowland blends historical issues and narratives with Vern’s life is via the book’s sci-fi elements. As Vern flees from Cainland and finds her mind to be increasingly filled with hauntings, the book comes to directly depict various past traumas that have been actively erased by prevailing historical narratives—everything from the numerous deaths resulting from the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, to various real-world incidents of medical experimentation conducted covertly against already marginalized groups by the United States government.

These themes appear in tandem with Vern’s eventual discovery of two people who, like her, are striving to uncover what is actually going on at Cainland: a Lakota woman named Bridget who knew Vern’s friend Lucy, and Gogo, Bridget’s niece who previously worked as a doctor during the Standing Rock pipeline protests, and as a result has a medical expertise that Vern desperately requires. Providing shelter to Vern and her children, Bridget and Gogo quickly realize the severity of whatever transformation Vern is undergoing.

However, Vern’s time with Bridget and Gogo doesn’t simply illuminate the conspiracy occurring at Cainland, but also the numerous ways in which Sherman’s oppressive rhetoric has infiltrated Vern’s own mind. In one scene, shortly after Gogo begins teaching Vern to read (education having been something which Sherman denied all women at Cainland), Vern experiences a brutal haunting in which a white woman from the era of slavery appears in Bridget’s house, and attempts to physically cut out Vern’s tongue in punishment for her literacy. In another scene, shortly after Vern reveals to Gogo the romantic feelings she has developed toward her, Sherman himself appears before Vern repeating the homophobic rhetoric common to his sermons (in effect requiring that Vern confront her own long-internalized feelings of shame at her sexuality). In still another scene that proves both unsettling but fascinating, Vern hallucinates a man beating his fist against her bedroom door, threatening her with a violence that she knows may very well prove deadly due to how her hauntings cause her real physical injury. Yet when the lock on Vern’s door breaks, Vern hears only a gunshot as an elderly woman steps out of the corner with a rifle, assuring Vern that the man will not harm her any more. This protective figure then seems to both morph into and merge with Gogo as the haunting ends.

The surreal nature of these images seems to reinforce how Vern’s own story of her escape from Cainland exists in parallel with numerous other histories and traumas. While Vern’s every waking moment is continually afflicted with experiences of death and violence as her hauntings grow more severe, the nature of these hauntings also slowly change as Sorrowland’s plot progresses. Never lessening in severity, the arc of the history Vern’s hauntings depict still seems to shift as the book approaches its conclusion, and whatever transformation Vern is undergoing nears its completion.

Sorrowland’s story eventually ends in a way that is brutal, unexpected, and also deeply radical in how it seems to rewrite the foundational narrative that the reader has at this point been expecting the story to follow. As a novel about a woman who escapes from an abusive religious compound, and who in the process is forced to reckon with her own internalized trauma, it’s almost inevitable that the plot will require that Vern eventually return to the Blessed Acres of Cain, and face down the forces that have tormented her so that they may no longer harm others.

Solomon does eventually enact this ending, with Vern and Gogo returning to Cainland, only to find that the compound’s residents have been executed in an act of state-sponsored violence meant to ensure that the true nature of this facility will not be uncovered by the outside world. Yet, in a scene that seems deliberately meant to contrast with the numerous other traumatic memories that Vern has repeatedly been subjected to via her hauntings, Vern then calls upon her own regenerative abilities to summon the souls of the residents of Cainland back to life. Thus Sorrowland arrives at an ending that is ambiguous and yet also hopeful, with Vern having effectively undergone a kind of apotheosis rendering her an immortal figure possessing the ability to reverse even death. In a profound final image, Vern and Gogo sit in a darkening forest as the newly resurrected survivors of Cainland are taken away to a nearby hospital, Vern listening to the cries of the wildlife that she characterizes as the screams of thousands of creatures assuring their survival to the world. These are screams which Vern then answers with her own.

As a story about intergenerational trauma and historical crimes, Solomon concludes Sorrowland with an ending that treats these subjects with the respect and caution they demand. Skillfully merging numerous historical narratives and issues into the experiences of one single character, Solomon ultimately manages not merely to examine the manner by which historical crimes build up in the present moment, but also the complicated and fraught issues associated with the recollection of such traumatic histories. By its ending, Sorrowland has established itself as a densely written novel whose haunting themes imbue the book with a historically charged energy, allowing the author to explore not only the layered ways in which past crimes linger in the present moment, but also the deadly consequences arising from the invisible nature of such trauma, and the manner by which, in one way or another, such experiences can never be truly erased.



Eric Hendel is a graduate of the University of Vermont, where he studied Japanese with a focus on Japanese literature and a concentration in second language education. He writes blog posts about fiction at erichendel.blogspot.com.
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