Sorrowland, by Rivers Solomon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Rivers Solomon’s previous novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts, was a powerful story set on a multi-generation space ship. Now she weaves a tale of magic and racism in the American South. The story begins with a gripping sequence as pregnant Black teen Vern escapes to the woods from an oppressive cult commune. Alone she gives birth to and then raises two very different fraternal twins. From almost the beginning of her exile, she’s hunted by shadowy demons and haunted by ghosts. I confess I found it unbelievable that a girl this young could not only survive delivering twins without help but re-invent survivalism, everything from finding or growing enough food to making her own shelter and clothing. However, the story carried me along, and it turned out I was right about these feats being extraordinary and it was a piece of deliberate awesomeness on the author’s part.
This book has many layers woven together. Seemingly disparate elements, like Vern’s ability to see and later to physically interact with ghosts, are eventually tied together as Vern’s physical and emotional transformation proceeds. The skillfulness of the prose and the dynamic plot momentum gave me enough confidence that the author knew what she was doing, and with each emerging connection, that trust was amply rewarded.
Solomon is a courageous, generous writer who doesn’t shrink from facing painful and difficult material squarely. Vern’s experiences in a Black-supremacist cult and her forays into the larger world are fraught with danger, bigotry, and ugliness. Yet the story never descends into polemics and it’s not solely about racism. There’s a great deal about love and loyalty and friendship, and how these define our humanity.