Review: Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Publication Date: May 2020
Attributes: adult fiction, novel, atmospheric horror, no gore
Tags: dark academia, bildungsroman, science is evil magic, listless bisexual protagonist, POC characters by POC author

College is “the best years of your life” — for some people. The graduates of Catherine House take that adage to a creepy extreme. Thomas' debut novel plunges into the halls of the remote liberal arts program known best for two things: its debunked research into “plasm,” aka vital energy, and the cultlike fervor and secrecy of its alumni.

Catherine House offers three years of free room, board, food, clothes, a sterling education with prestigious alumni, and anything else you'd need. All it asks in return is that you leave your old life behind — completely. The best of the best get to join the new materials program, the school's maybe-illegal continuation of its work with plasm.

Protagonist Ines finds herself depressed and adrift after a traumatic senior year of high school. Her years at Catherine House drift by out of chronology; at times it seems Ines has lost time while running from her past, and takes the reader along with her. The more time she spends at the school, the more tangled Ines and her classmates become in the secret experiments and unfortunate purpose of Catherine House. The school perhaps has more interest in curating isolated, unprotected youths than it does truly cultivating young minds.

Though the dramatic pieces follow common “dark academia” tropes, this novel is much more willing than the genre at large to grapple with the ways institutions exploit and manipulate students.

Thomas artfully captures the feeling of religious groupthink home to many an undergraduate experience — as well as the discomfort of being an outsider who hasn't quite drunk enough koolaid to buy in, but desperately wants to.

Readers might be disappointed if they're looking for an action-packed plot driven by a main character who makes galvanizing decisions. Ines' choices are often between quiet resistance quieter compliance; the crucial turning points come from others' decisions, and in Ines' emotional responses to them. Still, in Catherine House, the protagonist's reactivity and passivity are a compelling part of the story, rather than a fluke of bad design.

Ultimately, the narrative becomes about how Ines must learn to decide her future for herself, instead of merely reacting to the wants of those around her. It's a nice coming of age arc from a character perspective, established well through crisp writing and an eerie setting.

This book's strengths lie in its atmosphere: it meanders and runs up against odd borders, much like Ines herself as she searches for purpose and answers in a house seemingly designed to obscure both.

More like this: The Oracle Code by Marieke Nijkamp, The Secret History by Donna Tartt

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Kae Petrin is a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Find them at @petrinkae on Twitter.