Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Catherine House is a lingeringly sinister novel about an American college cut off from the rest of the world. Students can only attend Catherine House, an elite college with conspicuously successful alumni and free tuition and board, if they agree to be cut off from the outside world. Catherine House is full of rules about meals and clothing, with the threat of the school’s ‘tower’ if rules are broken, but is also a place full of wine and sex and discovery. Ines is a new student, on the run from her past and directionless in this place of intense academic study. She skips classes and lacks interest, but when her roommate Baby doesn’t return from the tower, she becomes more intrigued by the school’s mysterious new materials research.

Thomas has written a dreamlike, ambiguous novel with a writing style that seems to really reflect Ines’ state of mind (and frequent intoxication). The book combines the low claustrophobia of exclusive environments with the kind of decadent detail often found in books set in universities, and this results in something that is quite a compulsive read even though not a huge amount happens in it. Ines is a messed up protagonist, and probably people will be put off by her unlikeable nature and the way she just drifts through everything, but her character added to the atmosphere, and it would’ve been a quite different novel with a more likeable main character.

People will probably either really get into the novel, or not get along with it at all, due to the detailed yet meandering writing style, strange protagonist, and lack of answers. In tone and details it has similarities to The Secret History, though the writing style and narrative are very different, and it makes for an eerie read if you’re not looking for it to answer why things are happening, or why Catherine House has the rules it does. Maybe not one for lasting effect, but the reading experience was enjoyable.