Is it possible to enjoy a book without knowing what it is about? The answer to that of course depends on the type of book we’re talking about. With certain novels, the story’s meaning is implicit in the genre. A whodunnit is nothing more than the answer to an essential question that the story maps out, even when its underlying themes might not be as apparent. But most literary fiction (i.e., non-genre fiction) is laden with expectations about social or political themes, and messages about the modern world. Many readers have come to expect it, as is evident in all the think pieces, by critics and viewers alike, about racial themes in TV-adapted novels like Lovecraft Country. So the question still remains: is it possible to enjoy a book when its subtext befuddles or isn’t as immediately explicable?
That question dogged me as I read Follow Me to Ground, the debut novel from Dublin-based author, Sue Rainsford. On the surface, its themes of the body and nature, ailment and healing, of duty and desire, and disturbing, small town secrets are apparent, but there is a sense that beneath these there is something more, something not readily understood. That is the frustration Rainsford introduces in her story about healers and their strange power over the people in an unnamed village.
Ada is a young woman who, along with her father, heals the sick through her strange and magical capabilities. With only their hands, she and her father can part flesh and remove diseased organs. Sometimes they bury the sick in the Ground, a sacred, healing spot of earth in their garden with restorative properties. The sick can be buried for days or weeks before they are pulled out, healthier than when they were put in. So assured are father and daughter in their talents, they both refer to their patients as Cures, for rarely do they lose a person. While Ada is still learning, her father is the true expert, the one whom the villagers seek out for consultation. He is the only one who is allowed to bury the sick in the Ground, and he tends to the earth and its surrounding garden. But Ada’s skills are growing, as when, early in the novel, she wanders off into the nearby woods to meet her lover when she hears a baby crying in the bulrushes at Sister Eel Lake (the only named setting in the story). She takes the baby back home where her father is in the middle of helping a young woman give birth. The baby is the woman’s child, fully born and saved from what appears to be a difficult birth. Ada’s miraculous powers turn into the stuff of legend among the Cures, further cementing their curiosity about both her and her father. Though it is never directly stated within the novel, neither healer is human. The father shape-shifts into a wolf who hunts at night. He created Ada by fusing tree branches in the woods. Ada was not the first of his experiments, but she was the first to live, and to carry on her father’s work. Her father is all that Ada has in the world, but at the novel’s start, she begins aching for something more, something even she doesn’t quite understand.
Although told mostly from Ada’s point of view, Follow Me to Ground also explores the various perspectives of the Cures. They appear to accept Ada and her father as members of the community, except that, as one Cure states: “… they’re not like us” (p. 15), although even they forget this at times. Some of the children in the village inexplicably believe Ada is Sister Eel, the monstrous creature in the nearby lake, who allegedly eats children whole. In truth, the healers are tolerated because they help the Cures with their various ailments, though it is never stated outright why either do this. Both Ada and her father are immortals, again not stated outright, but they have been in the village for a long time, as long as anyone remembers, and neither have grown old. Ada still looks and behaves like a teenager, and, like any teen, is exploring her sexuality.
Samson, a troubled young man who lives in the village, is Ada’s lover. He picks her up in his truck and drives her out to the woods, near Sister Eel Lake, the only place where they can be alone, outside of the control of Ada’s father and Samson’s sister, Olivia. Olivia is widowed and pregnant. When she visits Ada for a healing she is soon to give birth, but her real intentions for the visit are readily apparent when Olivia suggests to Ada that she cannot trust her brother around her baby. When Ada questions Samson about his sister’s statements, he insinuates a far deeper and more troubling secret. The incestuous relationship between Samson and his sister is the source of those secrets, but Rainsford is less interested in ticking off mystery boxes or shock revelations than she is in how these secrets manifest themselves in the drastic choices Ada makes. She is a healer, and when she sees the sickness inside Samson, she does only what a healer can.
At the root of the novel are the consequences of secrets and obsessive desire, but as I have written before, something else is buried deep within the novel’s subtext. The novel ends on an ambiguous note, and a rather abrupt one as well. But Ada, having taken steps to fulfill her desires, is willing to accept the destructive nature of those desires:
No matter if he’s strange. No matter if he’s been birthed with a flicker he hadn’t before. No matter if he’s cruel or governed by a hungry fever. No matter, because I’ll no longer be sat here with my heart unseeded and my insides crackling dry. (p. 197)
The novel is riddled with contradictions. Ada and her father are healers, but Ada chooses actions that lead toward destruction, while her father is willing to destroy one of the Cures to preserve his own way of life. The villagers depend on the healers but are wary of them as well. The novel’s setting feels rooted in the present, and yet it feels as though it takes place in no time or place we can recognize. In the end, love is not love, but an obsession, a sickness from which one can never truly heal.
I return to my first question, which, rephrased only slightly, is: can one enjoy a novel so ambiguous in its intentions at first glance? I think so, yes. In many ways, Follow Me to Ground has more in common with modernist and realist novels that are less interested in making grand statements and more focused on asking questions, exploring ideas, and not quite resolving the complex, psychological nature of human intentions. Perhaps, in today’s world, when much of literature and pop culture has taken a hammer to subtext and left no doubt as to the authors’ intent, it is a revelation when we come across a novel that has no desire to be straightforward, but captures how we experience reality in all its ambiguities and strangeness. In many ways, Follow Me to Ground reminds me of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, with its endless layers of interpretation. Yet where that novel asks whether its protagonist is experiencing spectral hauntings or is the victim of her own repressed sexuality, Follow Me to Ground does not immediately set out its own set of questions, but allows the reader to determine them herself. There are many layers in the novel, and a reader can approach them from many angles. It did not click with me, at least until writing this, what some of those interpretations might be. I’m reluctant to reveal them. The pleasure in reading novels like Follow Me to Ground is in discovering what they might mean to the reader herself. I can spoil what happens at the end (and it does have a bit of a twist), but imposing one’s own interpretation on those who haven’t read it yet seems like the greater sin.
Regardless of how one approaches this novel, Follow Me to Ground is baffling, intriguing, frustrating, predictable, and yet wholly unpredictable. Rainsford’s style seems deceptively simple, and yet, beneath a cool, assured hand, she creates a layered world that begs more questions than answers and leaves you in quiet contemplation long after the last page is turned.