"He'd tell me how he mixed my parts together and planted me inside of a sack. He tied it shut with a rope and then lowered me down during a thunderstorm, and kept the end of the rope tied to the knob on the patio door." Miss Ada, the narrator of Sue Rainsford's beguiling, atmospheric debut Follow Me to Ground, gives us the lowdown on her origins. Miss Ada and her father are non-human healers who live on the margins of a small rural town – possibly in Ireland, possibly further afield – but certainly grounded in the familiar human territory of fear, sickness and the body.
First published in Ireland last year by New Island, and recently given a wider launch by bigger publishers in the UK and US, Follow Me to Ground mixes elements of horror, fairytale and myth to deliver a compelling, odd beast of a book. Arresting animal imagery is a feature throughout the story, from the healers’ den-like living quarters on the margins of the town, to the visceral descriptions of Ada’s father: “It suited him better, his animal gait. Though his limbs were modelled on a Cure male they were always ready to bend, his shoulders happily slinking forward and his hips rising behind him, the muscles in his legs pulled taut and presenting themselves.”
Ada has her own animalistic traits: “They didn’t know I stole the song out of baby birds.” In short sections narrated by various villagers, we hear of a wolf licking Ada’s face. The different perspectives are interesting and break up Ada’s dark, sometimes monotonous healer work, and in a more conventional narrative they would be used to build tension and mystery around a plot. But Rainsford is not concerned with plot – she deliberately obscures her narrative at key points, preferring instead to immerse the reader in Ada’s strange world of death and desire.
For all its gruesome imagery – the healing work sees Ada and her father split open the bodies of villagers (known as Cures) with their hands and delve into their innards – there is a classic coming-of-age tale in Follow Me to Ground. Ada may be non-human, but Rainsford’s lyrical, hypnotic prose allows us to relate to her with ease. There is a furtiveness in the book, both in story and style, with Rainsford artfully bringing the reader along even as Ada’s desires grow ever more dangerous.
The centre of her affections is a village boy, the mythically named Samson, who brings sexual awakening, “a wondering at the sweet-hurt ache I know now to be what Cures call ‘lust’, ‘longing’”. Though Ada’s father has tried to keep her separate from the Cures, her feelings for Samson result in her wanting to escape the role she was, quite literally, made for: “I looked inside him [her father] and saw what he wanted for me: a half-life. A body barely stimulated, its urges only ever partially fulfilled.”
Rainsford lives in Dublin and is a recipient of an Arts Council bursary and the VAI/DCC Critical Writing Award. Her debut won the Kate O'Brien Award and was longlisted for this year's Desmond Elliot Prize. She has a degree in art history and an MFA from Bennington College. A note at the end of her book says she read Simone de Beauvoir at college and became fascinated by the poetic, metaphorical language around the female experience. This is certainly evident in some fantastic ideas about the body in her book. Her novel recalls Alexandra Kleeman's debut You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, another nightmarish, cerebral examination of the female body. The luminous world in Follow Me to Ground also bears comparison with writers like Sophie Mackintosh and Sara Taylor. Closer to home, Rainsford's knack for writing bracing, off-kilter realities with strong feminist overtones recalls recent books from Sarah Davis-Goff and Sarah Maria Griffin.
In Follow Me to Ground, Rainsford creates a liminal space of death and birth, sickness and health, human and other. The body is central to her novel – its horror, its abjections, the way it supports us and fails us, the way we give it up to others, the way we claw it back. The surrounding world is full of gothic detail and unease – The Burial Patch, The Ground, or the infamous Sister Eel Lake with its history of cannibal serpents: “It was Sister Eel who had years ago eaten most of Christopher Plume, a slim and freckled child, when he was nine.”
Readers looking for a conventional plot or hand-holding through a murky world will be disappointed. In her pursuit of her desires, Ada embarks on a kind of madcap eugenics scheme that weaves and wanders, and frequently deceives, but we keep reading, following after her, into the ground.