This is one of those books that I knew I wanted to read. Both of the previous books I’ve read by Solomon (An Unkindness of Ghosts and The Deep) have been phenomenal. But I also knew it was going to be pretty heavy, as all their books have been, and also this one in particular leaned into horror (according to the blurb), which is a genre I usually steer clear from, as I am so easily scared. So I knew I wanted to read it, but I had to wait until the right time – and as the days have been getting warmer and longer, I felt like I was finally ready to take it on.
“To believe too much in anything was to sacrifice your faculties.”
At seven months pregnant, Vern escapes the strict (cult-like, really) religious compound where she has been raised, fleeing into the woods. These woods are the place where she gives birth to twins, determined to raise them far from the world, despite the lurking presence of the dangerous Fiend. But the community she escaped from refuses to let her go, and she’s dealing with a strange physical metamorphosis that is giving her some intense powers (and causing some intense pain). In order to figure out what is happening to her, and create a safe future for her twins, Vern will have to face her past, confront the compound she escaped from (and it’s deeply buried secrets tied to the dark sides of recent American history), and learn to harness her anger and power for both destruction and hope.
As expected, this was dark, emotionally intense, incredibly socially…exposing (for lack of a better word there), and, as far as the fantasy-horror aspects are concerned, creepily tense and perfectly weird. It begins as a sort of dreamy (or nightmare-y) surreal woodsy horror (though with a scarily familiar basis), that slowly blends right into a present day that does a most spectacular job highlighting the horror of our actual history/reality. Like I said, I don’t really read horror (I’m a scaredy-cat…and value my sleep too much), but this particular style of horror does seem reminiscent of the one other horror novel I”ve read in the past like, five years: The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones. Both touch on the real terrors of colonization and intergenerational memory and trauma and current day white ignorance and interweaves that all beautifully with a supernatural (and sort of psychological) terror built around nature and animals. Overall, a very well-written combination of speculative/magical realism and real-life style fiction.
A few other themes that stuck out to me while reading included the mythologicalization (did I make that word up?)/mystification, in a folklore-like way, of the strength and endurance that mothers, Black mothers specifically, have been forced to have, throughout American history. I also loved the various ways that intergenerational and historic trauma was portrayed, both with the memories that come through, for Vern, as “hauntings,” as well as the physical manifestation of the deformation and resilience this caused/required for survival with the “passenger.” And although we do eventually get a more “solid” explanation for said passenger (in a horrible, but also sort of poignant way), I am still here for the metaphorical interpretation of it that I first landed on.
Additionally, there was such a focus on the calling out of government neglect and taking advantage of the most vulnerable for their own ends – a pattern throughout American history, and not at all better in the present day, that deserves all the calling out that can be leveled at it. Solomon does a lot to recognize the many ways this manifests itself in Vern’s life, as a Black woman/mother, as well as through her friend Gogo, who gives voice to the Indigenous populations of this land. (Solomon also recognizes those first peoples in her acknowledgements and notes that appear at both the start and finish of this novel.) There is quite a bit of violence in this story, of the institutional and interpersonal varieties, from those we trust and those we don’t, and it is often quite a lot to take in. Along with all the other potentially triggering topics mentioned up to this point, please be aware of that. However, after some peak violence/loss and Vern’s final confrontation with her original “home,” there is also a slight message of hope in the ending, which is particularly meaningful, after everything heavy this story holds. Overall, the vibe and messaging in this novel are the definitive highlights. While I was into the story the whole time, I have to say that the plot and character development are not as robust, and wouldn’t hold their own, in my opinion, without the rest. Like I said, still quite an engrossing read, but I wanted to just make note of that, so readers come in with correct expectations of where the genius in this piece of literature lies.
A final thing I want to note about this novel, and I feel like it deserves its own paragraph because of how wonderful it is: the representation aspects. In general, there is just a glorious queer vibe to this entire novel, but the way that Solomon specifically addresses (or doesn’t address, as it were) gender, is special. Firstly, there is such a breadth of gender rep, including both trans and intersex (not something I often see/read), as well as an overall purposeful dis-clarity on characters’ genders that is both disconcerting (as sometimes the pronoun play is so smooth/subtle that it makes you question your reading comprehension) and refreshing (because then it helps you realize it wasn’t your comprehension, but your assumptions, that were the issue). The fact that Vern raises her twins in the woods, where there is no arbitrary societal expectation/standard to bump up against, provides a powerful setting to illustrate how much gender really doesn’t matter (in general and especially to/for children). And I love the way that makes you question all the thinking/assumptions about gender that you were raised to think of as natural and normal. I also liked the interesting parallel of physical “baggage” and keeping the body hidden, the ways it is both different and the same for Vern and Gogo with the passenger and being trans.
There is also a great look at disability, in this case visual impairment, that is not something I have often read. I appreciated the exploration even more as someone who is visually impaired myself, and how modern technology has made it *almost* not even considered a disability anymore, so that it makes one wonder what else could have that kind of progression towards “normal disability” if only we cared enough as a society.
At one point there is a passage that refers to “constant vigilance and pathological distrust” and the toll it takes on the mind and body. I feel like a major tenet of this novel is to illustrate that in ways both literal and figurative, real and magical, for Black women/mothers in America. I let out a *big* breath and “wow” after finishing, letting my shoulders finally release their tension. This is a spectacular piece of literature, transcending genre and social justice commentary to become something greater with messages that ring deep and loud and queer, full of horror and just enough hope and resilience to convince you to keep living in, and fighting against, that horror.
“…Vern preferred this obvious malevolence to the covert violence of life beyond the trees. To be warned of bad happenings afoot was a welcome luxury.”
“Better not to belong at all than to belong in a cage.”
“Obstinately still, Vern had made a pact a long time ago to do the opposite of whatever was expected of her as often as possible. […] Going against tended to end more rightly, more justly, than going with. People were wrong. Rules, most of the time, favored not what was right, but what was convenient or preferable to those in charge.”
“There were a thousand ways to defile perfection.”
“When you can’t fill a hole with goodness, fill it with filth. Paint it over.”
“Society demanded a certain level of lying about oneself.”
“If it was so unnatural to feel this way, then why did Vern exist? She was part of nature, too, wasn’t she? Humans and their proclivities were as much a part of the earth as trees, as rivers. Loving and fucking and kissing and nuzzling and fucking were more commonplace than sunrise.”
“…but bravery was a finite resource. Like a piece of thread, it frayed in time when tested too heavily.”
“Ollie and those like her wanted people to think their power was eternal, but even gods died. Empires, too. Continents shifted. Nations came. Nations went. Castles became ruins.”
“Maybe it was hard to give the world your best when the world always gave you its worst.”
“…it was the world, not the people, who were broken. People believed whatever they needed to, to maintain a thread of power in a society that systematically stripped them of it.”
“Loving, worshipping, and bowing to folks who harmed you was written into the genes of all animal creatures. To be alive meant to lust after connection, and better to have one with the enemy than with no one at all. A baby’s fingers and mouth grasped on instinct.”
“The United States was a catalogue of known wrongs. […] Who cared who knew if the knowing didn’t prevent future occurrences?”