Rivers Solomon is an author who crafts stories about those marginalised, those seeking a voice, and those who experience inequality and intolerance. The writing is poetic and edgy, as Rivers Solomon uses a style to add another dimension to a very unique story. I was really enthused from the outset of Sorrowland to embark on a journey into a challenging plot and a unique set of characters. Rivers Solomon takes the opportunity to layer the novel with several contemporary messages on black slavery, anti-US establishment and how powerful people can evade repercussion for criminal and unethical acts. These themes overlay a central plot where a young girl Vern escapes a cult to gain freedom and seek answers.
“Sherman preached that Cainland’s untouchability by the law was because of the God of Cain, but Vern was old enough now to know there was no God of Cain. Something else safeguarded the compound. Or someone else.”
Vern is fifteen years old living in, Cainland, where she is pregnant and married to the cult leader Reverend Sherman. Her nights are horrifying as she is strapped into bed and fed a concoction of drugs. Vern, however, manages to escape into the woods and ekes out an existence for four years trying to evade any search efforts to find her. The Fiend hunts her and torments her with objects letting her know she is being watched and hunted. She hears the wolves at night as they flush out the runaways.
Vern delivers twins, two boys called Howling and Feral, and she teaches them about the woods with their exuberant thirst for knowledge. There is endearing respect the boys have for nature and all living things, even if it is to be food. Gradually Vern experiences physical change and we wonder if these are a reaction to the drugs (or now lack of), maybe cancer taking root and spreading, a viral infection, or a metaphysical change. Coupled with her bodily changes, Vern experiences nightmares and hallucinations she calls ‘Hauntings’. The hauntings feel very real and she struggles to recognise reality from the otherworldly visions she inhabits.
Realising she can’t live like this forever and that she needs to consider her children, Vern takes the massive step of leaving the woods and tracking down her best friend Lucy, who left the compound many years before. On Vern’s travels, we see her as an unlikeable person, brash, selfish, thankless, while also fascinating and resourceful. While easy to dislike, she has been deeply damaged with the lifestyles she endured. When she finds Lucy’s home, she discovers Lucy is presumed dead but forms a close relationship with Gogo, a Native American, and Bridget who take her and her children in. As expected, she is eventually hunted down and the scope of the conspiracy starts to unfold.
At this point, I’m thinking – take it home Rivers. You’re onto a winner. Unfortunately for me, the wheels came of the story and it became confusing, bizarre, convenient in the plotting, irrelevant holes the story jumped into to somehow illustrate some of the issues the author is passionate about and delivered plot lines that seemed impractical and unrealistic. Major WTF moments ruined a beautiful thing.
In the first 60 % of the book, I was enthralled with an unparalleled storyline and underlying mystery. The last 40 % totally turned my opinion 180 degrees on what had been a very impressive novel. This was a Buddy read with my Buddy, Ceecee, and after being excited for the first half of the book and excited about our discussions, we both reached a realisation that a major shift had occurred, and the scenes were difficult to enjoy. Please read Ceecee’s review, for her thoughts.
Ceecee and I seem to be outliers with this one. I would like to thank Random House, Merky Books, Farrar Straus & Giroux, and NetGalley for providing me with a free copy in return for an honest review.