by Helen Patterson
If you’re looking for a new Halloween read, consider Irish writer Sue Rainsford’s debut novel, Follow Me to Ground, winner of the 2019 Kate O’Brien award. Follow Me to Ground is the strangest and most unsettling book I’ve read this year, and Rainsford’s precise, descriptive prose will haunt you long after you’ve finished it.
Follow Me to Ground has the timeless, dreamlike quality of a fairytale. In this fairytale world, our narrator, Ada, is a supernatural creature living on the fringes of human society. She is uncanny, powerful, and, from a human perspective, almost unchanging.
Ada wasn’t born; she was made by her father (who was himself made by his father) from branches and other natural elements. Ada and her father are healers who live apart from the human villagers, whom they call “Cures.” Whenever Cures are ill, they visit Ada and her father, who can put them into a kind of stasis, open them up, and cut out most kinds of sickness. Severely ill Cures are put into stasis and buried alive in The Ground, a hallowed space in Ada’s garden that can mend those buried there. Most Cures emerge from The Ground days later completely well, but, as Ada learns, The Ground is also dangerous and unpredictable.
In many ways, Follow Me to Ground is a coming-of-age-story. As Ada becomes more aware of her otherness and how uncanny her existence is from a human perspective, she feels that something is missing from her life. She develops feelings for a Cure named Samson and starts sleeping with him. Ada understands, like the creature-wives in many other fairytales, that she and Samson cannot be together because they’re not the same. And yet she can’t help herself because her feelings for Samson are hers, and they help her begin to individuate herself: “Foolish to fall in line with a Cure’s girlhood and imagine such feelings belonged to me. But I had been living a muted kind of life, and I had gone all this time without meeting someone who’d fall asleep, of their own accord, beside me” (93).
Unfortunately for Ada, she discovers she has powers and desires her father lacks–this realization paired with her determination to assert herself as an individual has potentially grave consequences.
Follow Me to Ground is told almost entirely from Ada’s perspective, but her narration is interrupted by brief passages about “Miss Ada” from the villagers’ perspectives. Though I initially found these passages jarring, I think they help to emphasize Ada’s strangeness by offering other points of view and opinions about her life. Rainsford’s lush yet concise prose gives Ada a compelling voice as narrator, though; there isn’t a single extraneous word or phrase. The reader gets tantalizing, vivid glimpses of Ada’s world and inner life, and yet there’s still an air of mystery as Ada and the reader both struggle to discover who she’s becoming.
Some of Rainsford’s most successful passages are about Ada’s interactions with the Cure bodies she heals. These passages are lyrical but unsettling, and in some places they read almost like body horror. When Ada opens up a Cure woman named Lorraine to relieve her menopause symptoms, she describes the process: “The skin of her stomach fell easily apart, its elastic long gone. The ovaries were all sinewy and very small, lined with the deep grooves of a peach stone, and her womb shone with an unseemly wet” (125). Ada’s hyperawareness of bodies and how they work and her growing awareness of her own body are at the beating heart of this fascinating novel.
If you like eerie books that linger after you’ve read them, I recommend Follow Me to Ground. And ifyou enjoy this book as much as I did, Rainsford has a second novel, Redder Days, coming out in March of 2021. I’m planning on purchasing it from one of my local bookstores.
Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.
Follow Me to Ground
Scribner, January 2020 (Originally published 2019, New Island Books, Ireland)
Hardcover, 199 pages, $25