Tuesday 14 August 2018

Rainsford's magical debut is a beautiful fable - rich in shocking, dark mystery

Fiction: Follow Me to Ground, Sue Rainsford, New Island €11.95

Follow Me to Ground
Follow Me to Ground

Anne Cunningham

Time was when we relied almost exclusively on Latin American authors for a slice of magical realism, but the genre's popularity has grown in the last decade or so and Dublin-based artist and writer Sue Rainsford has produced an impressive feat of imagination in this debut novel.

Rather than choosing our own land of mists and Celtic legends, though, she has set her story in small-town-anywhere, although there's a strong tang of backwoods America about it. It is from Ada, her protagonist, that we learn something about 'The Ground', the beginning and end of everything in this book.

Ada and her father live outside of town in a clearing in the woods, near Sister Eel Lake. They practice medicine of a sort, calling their patients - the local townsfolk - 'Cures'. From the start it's clear that Ada and her father are not of this world - or at least not from above ground. Instead, Ada has been born of The Ground.

That's where she emerged from and it's where she and her father place some of their Cures temporarily, burying them in a patch of ground in the backyard. This particular patch is well-tended by Ada's father, watered and minded like any healing shrine would be.

The townsfolk come daily with their ailments, everything from boils and acne to cancer and withering foetuses. And Ada's almost as competent a healer as her father.

The more serious cases of life-threatening illnesses require that patients be interred - sometimes for days - in 'The Ground'. But they don't die, they are resurrected from the sacred patch in the back yard, usually fully cured. This is a fable rich and bursting with all kinds of religious symbolism.

While 'The Ground' is perceived as a womb-like force of life and healing, the body of water nearby, Sister Eel Lake, depicts death and danger.

Despite many warnings, Sister Eel Lake is where Ada spends time with her new beau, the shifty but handsome Samson.

Samson is a Cure and Ada's father forbids the relationship. Father insists their role is to heal humans, not to befriend them. But desire is a heady potion, as heady as Ada's home-made elixirs.

When Samson's sister arrives on Ada's doorstep pregnant and seeking medical assistance, Ada's suspicions are aroused. Though widowed in recent times, the maths don't add up - the child cannot be her dead husband's. And then there's the fact that Samson lives with his sister. And, although Samson insists his sister's not afraid of him, Ada suspects that in fact she is.

Because she knows that Samson is lying, Ada concludes he must be sick. And she's a healer.

All of her life, she's heeded her father's repeated warning: "Sick is sick, and it has to go somewhere, and some sicknesses are dangerous when taken out of a body." All of her life, that is, until now.

Stark, poetic, shocking and quite beautiful, this short novel has an echo of Steinbeck about it, if Steinbeck had written dark, mysterious fairy tales.

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