Elisabeth Thomas, Catherine House (New York: Custom House, 2020)
I’ve been a fan of campus novels ever since I discovered John Williams’s Stoner back in 2014, and over the years I’ve devoured a few of them: Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Julie Schumacher’s The Shakespeare Requirement, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House, like these novels, is in part about the cultish insularity of academic culture. But in Catherine House the campus is not just a backdrop for egomaniacal or depressed or sexually frustrated academics. It is actually about the campus, about the psychological pull of a place, the tyranny and pleasure of decadent buildings and lavish common areas and hushed, overgrown gardens.
This might seem like a strange premise for a book that is being marketed as literary suspense, a genre based, in part, on the anticipated revelations of plot. And there is a plot to this book: Ines, our first-person narrator, runs from a torrid and violent past into the refuge of Catherine House, an elite, controversial liberal arts school in rural Pennsylvania. Full tuition and living expenses are covered for accepted students, but there’s a hitch: all students must cut ties to their past selves, including their families and loved ones, and no one from outside the community can enter. Soon, Ines begins to learn why: Catherine House is secretly conducting bizarre experiments on students using “plasma pins,” small needles that sutre broken objects and people together. Under the sway of the pins, the students grow content, attached, even addicted to the school. The story comes to a climax when Ines, after repeated imprisonments in an isolated tower, becomes determined to escape.
Catherine House is a slow, steamy burn, and the narrator, Ines, may feel flat to some readers in search of a character they can root for. She’s arch and withdrawn and reveals very little about her past, although what little she does reveal–a sordid evening, an accidental death–is harrowing. As I read, I started to think of her flatness as a consequence of living at Catherine House: she’s been emptied of her past and made to join the artful Gothic decay of the campus, to merge with its faded curtains and patterned wallpapers and mossy courtyards. “I was there,” Ines writes, “an infinite object tessellating into the house’s infinite architecture” (260). She is like the triptychs and altarpieces hanging in the school’s dusty galleries, the depictions of praying saints: “Their misery was flamboyant and gorgeous” (204).
The antique ruin of the school contrasts with the characters’ desires to stay young forever, in a kind of collegiate Neverland, with endless supplies of wine and tea. The characters have a morbid fear of getting older. Ines’s boyfriend, Theo, wonders what Ines was like as a little girl; a crucial character is nicknamed Baby; a friend of Ines, Diego, worries that “someday I’ll look around and realize forty years have passed and no one can see me” (229). This fear of growing older, of change, slowly begins to merge, in perverse ways, with the school’s plasma research.
Catherine House is a blend of genres: a Gothic novel, a campus novel, even a coming-of-age, in a way. The writing is lucid and highly readable, and Thomas has a painter’s eye for visual detail. I’d recommend it for fans of literary Gothic and readers who enjoy setting as much as plot.