BookBrowse Reviews Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford

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Follow Me to Ground

by Sue Rainsford

Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford X
Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2020, 208 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2021, 208 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Dean Muscat
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Sue Rainsford's debut is a bewitching fantasy tale that crackles with folkloric magic and femininity.

Ada and her father are human-like beings who age slowly and possess the power to heal all illness. From their home on the edge of an unnamed village, the pair treat Cures—their word for sick locals—by reaching into their bodies to draw out the ailments or by burying them for a few days in the Ground, a menacing and seemingly sentient patch of soil in their backyard with which the healers have a psychic connection.

Alienated from the rest of the village folk, young Ada begins to question her not-quite human, not-quite otherworldly existence. Grown by her father in the Ground, Ada is superficially a woman yet she possesses no sexual organs. When she falls for Samson—an enigmatic young man who is harboring a dark family secret together with his pregnant, widowed sister Olivia—Ada wakes up to an urge to finally take control of her body, her sexuality and her inbetweenness. But her subsequent actions have devastating consequences.

Stylistically and thematically, Follow Me to Ground is a novel all about liminality. The novel itself sits somewhere between magical realism and the new weird. If you can imagine Angela Carter and Jeff VanderMeer producing a literary child together, it would probably look a lot like this.

And yet, for a novel rich in supernatural soil, men transforming into bears, and the reanimated dead, Rainsford has pulled off a neat trick in making it all feel grounded. This isn't high concept fantasy, but a folkloric fable that just might have happened once not so long ago. It reads like a dream with its own contained logic, an effect crystalized through Rainsford's fecund imagery expressed through earthy language: "The summers here are made of long, untended grass and flat, lemon light. Baking ground. Sunshine-haze. Shadows cast so dark and deep they seem as solid and alive as the bodies that throw them."

Also helping balance the strange with the ordinary are the personal testimonies from villagers that intercut Ada's main narrative. In their no-nonsense vernacular, we hear young and old tell of their experiences under the hands of the healers, the gossip and rumors they've heard about town, how they both fear and appreciate these unknowable neighbors.

Ada in particular is held in mistrust. On the surface, she appears to be an ageless inhuman girl with "unnerving" girlish looks. But inside she's beginning to want to explore "the sweet-hurt ache I know now to be what Cures call 'lust,' 'longing.'" Her latent sexuality is feared. One female villager recounts "[N]one of the men went near her. All sorts of reasons. Rumors, for starters—it'd get bitten off; she'd eat you after." Another tells of stumbling upon Ada in the woods: "she was lying with a wolf."

She isn't spared judgment from the one person of her kind either. Her father disapproves of her affair with Samson—the only village boy who doesn't run off at the sight of her—wishing Ada would devote her full attention to refining her healing skills.

At its core, Follow Me to Ground is a story about a daughter on the cusp of womanhood carving a life for herself away from her well-meaning if overbearing father. This could have so easily been just another fantastically-tinged tale of a girl seeking and attaining her own agency. Thankfully, it's much stranger than that, and all the more powerful for it.

By loading her characters full of conflicting symbolism—Ada is a construct for oppressed femininity, untethered sexuality, gentle caregiver and witch, while the Father embodies notions of creator and patriarch, a shapeshifter with staunch moral codes who allows himself to express his own baser instincts by running off into the wild transformed as a bear—Rainsford's small family drama takes on mythic proportions, where everyday hurts and betrayals have everlasting effects on an entire village. And like the best works dealing in symbols and metaphor, this is a novel that resists easy interpretation and neat conclusions; it can be read in myriad ways.

Follow Me to Ground is a haunting, intoxicating debut that establishes its author as one to watch in the future.

Reviewed by Dean Muscat

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in February 2020, and has been updated for the January 2021 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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