By Rivers Solomon
I received an ARC of Sorrowland from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in exchange for an honest review.
I’m always on the lookout for books by authors who aren’t cishet white men, and given the rave reviews for Solomon’s debut An Unkindness of Ghosts, I was eagerly anticipating Sorrowland. I hope now that Solomon’s latest is a fluke, because there’s no elegant way to say it—Sorrowland is a strong story that devolves into an absolute mess, so overstuffed with underdeveloped themes, metaphors, and characters (who don’t behave anything like human beings) that it falls apart.
Sorrowland follows Vern, an albino Black woman who escapes a cult leader and gives birth to twins she names Howling and Feral, who she lives with in the woods. The opening section of the novel, in which Vern struggles to survive with her children and minimal contact with the outside world while being hunted by a psychological tormenter she refers to as “the fiend,” are singularly thrilling and literally haunting. Vern is the most compelling character in the book, precocious but also emotionally and intellectually stunted; the love she has for her children is real, but she also abandons them regularly when lured by the siren song of civilization. Sorrowland is at its strongest when it inhabits the liminal spaces of Vern at her most self-contradictory.
No other character in the novel—there aren’t many—is given the care and attention that Solomon gives to Vern. They are either caricature or only briefly sketched, sauntering onto the figurative stage to propel Vern’s development before conveniently disappearing. None of them act in a way resembling real humans; they react to things such as ghosts and decapitations with roughly the same level of shock that I express when I open the microwave and discover a bowl of soup that I put in four hours ago and forgot to eat (i.e. an extremely low level of shock).
I do want to note that I did not find the book unrealistic insofar as it echoes real-world horrors. The central metaphor of Sorrowland draws upon the exploitation of Black bodies (if you don’t think about Henrietta Lacks while reading this novel, you aren’t paying attention), and in that respect it resonates deeply and truly. It is only in how characters behave within the fictional framework that Sorrowland violates any semblance of credulity and ultimately unravels.
The problems get worse and worse as the book goes on. My brain broke during a scene involving Rihanna’s song “Shut Up And Drive”; it was one of the (I hesitate to use this sloppy descriptor in my formal writing, but I can’t come up with an alternative that accurately describes the reaction I had) cringey-est sequences I’ve ever read in a work of professional fiction. By the time I reached the rushed finale, which demonstrates all the craftsmanship of a homework assignment slapped together hours before submission, I was so checked out that I couldn’t bring myself to care about anything that was happening. Frankly, I was glad to finally be done with the novel.
Solomon’s writing, at least, is strong. There are a number of striking passages in Sorrowland, particularly when it flirts with horror, and the book likely would have benefitted from leaning more heavily into the escalating tension and atmosphere of oppressive dread that clings to its early sections. But strong writing isn’t enough to save the novel from the uneven pacing and lack of compelling character work that undermine its final third and finale. Sorrowland may not be the worst book I read this year—it has many admirable qualities, and it’s not an unequivocal failure—but it will certainly be one of the most disappointing. I hope the next work from Solomon is just as fiery and just as ambitious, but I also hope it is more fully realized.
Sorrowland will be published May 4th, 2021.
Review by Erin Larson