Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

“I used to believe the house was haunted. Really, it was the other way around; the house haunted me.”

While certainly not without its merits Catherine House is an ultimately predictable piece of Gothic fiction that tries to be the next Vita Nostra but doesn’t quite succeed. The novel is bogged down by slow pacing, an overly elusive story, populated by cast of barely fleshed out characters, and a painfully conventional dark academia type of ‘heroine’ (who is Not Like Other Girls & has a ‘dark’ secret related to her ‘mysterious’ past). It’s a pity as there were quite a few elements that I actually appreciated. Thomas writing is, for the most part, lush and she truly excels at Gothic atmosphere. She conveys the unease that pervades Ines’ stay at Catherine House and there are many passages that linger on her senses of smell and taste suggestive of the House’s ‘wrongness’. I particularly liked the use of repetition, be it through language or imagery.

Through a 1st pov, Catherine House follows Ines Murillo and her three years at Catherine House, a private university shrouded in mystery. We learn almost nothing about who she—or any other character for the matter—was before CH and this is due to the place’s strict rules about leaving one past behind. We are told that students have very few privileges and can earn more freedom through ‘points’ but Thomas never really expands on how these works, in fact, they matter very little. I would have preferred more descriptions about CH, its architecture and history, or anything really. By giving us very little information the place does acquire an air of ambiguity that does accentuate the narrative enigmatic tone. Condensing three years in one novel took away from the overall narrative. Ines’ time at CH was fairly repetitive and not particularly sinister. There is one ‘turning point’ of sorts towards the end of her first year but after that the narrative hits a plateau. Knowing more about the teachers and the lessons Ines attends would have made her time there more interesting. Instead, most of the story seems intent on setting up its Gothic aesthetics (beauty is terror and all that). Ines makes for a dull narrator. Everyone tells us she’s special and different (I did love the “my little sideways girl” line) but she’s anything but. She’s confused 24/7 and although she tells us that she wants to do this (learn CH’s secrets) or feels that (for a boy) it just didn’t reach me. Thomas tells us what her protagonist feels or wants to do but she fails to back this up by showing us that yes Ines feels sad, happy, or whatever else.
The novel implements Gothic tropes and many dark academia conventions. While I understand that the Gothic genre is derivative by its very nature (Pet Sematary > Frankenstein > Milton’s Paradise Lost + Promethean myth; The Historian > Interview with a Vampire > Dracula > Transylvanian folklore) I would expect a contemporary Gothic novel to be more subversive than Catherine House. There was no point in which I felt scared, surprised or apprehensive on Ines’ behalf. That is partly because I cared zilch about her or her supposed ‘friends’ (who seem a mere caricature of the typical academia clique of beautiful & languid people). I don’t think it’s a good sign when you care more about a secondary character’s pet snail than say any of the human characters.
It also struck me that novel was trying too hard to be something by Shirley Jackson. Hangsaman in particular came to mind. But, where I was intrigued by how obscure & unreliable a narrative Hangsaman is, I was unimpressed by Thomas’ novel directionless. It pulls the classic ‘confusing for the sake of being confusing’ shtick (whereas the ambiguity of Hangsaman struck me as a result of its mc’s dissociation from reality).
Yet, there were lines that I really liked (“I am in the house, we chanted. The house is in the woods. My hands are on the table. The table is in the woods.” did bring to mind Merricat’s “I put my hands quietly in my lap. I am living on the moon, I told myself, I have a little house all by myself on the moon.”). The dreamy quality that permeates Ines’ narration could also be effective in that it makes her more unreliable and it blurs the lines between reality and fantasy.
The ‘plasm’ was a big letdown. That and ‘the tower’ are meant to be the narrative’s main sources of tension but when Ines sees more of them…it just felt bathetic.
As debuts go Catherine House is a rather mediocre one. Thomas can clearly write well but story and character-wise her novel has little to offer. Catherine House itself needed more page time (rather than having so many paragraphs about Ines’ specialness, what she eats or smells). Thomas overplays how ‘sinister’ it is. Does weird shit go down in it? Sure but sometimes subtlety does the trick (the institutions in Magda Szabó’s Abigail and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go felt far more oppressive & forbidding without them being exaggeratedly spooky a la CH). Ultimately Catherine House is a novel that choose style over substance. It delivers a perfectly Gothic atmosphere and some terrific lines but fails to provide anything more substantial. What was the point? Was this a story about wanting to belong? Of otherness? I don’t know and unlike with Hansgaman, I don’t care to revisit it in order to maybe find out. Still, I am curious to see what Thomas writes next. If you are the type of reader who exclusively—or almost exclusively—cares about aesthetics and ambience, well, you might be the right reader for Catherine House.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s