A College for Lost Souls: Elisabeth Thomas’s “Catherine House”

I did not mean to read science fiction this month.  I am wearied of the way it has seeped into our lives. On a recent bicycle trip, I was ready for the apocalypse. I took not only a bottle of water, but sanitizer, a mask, wipes (originally makeup wipes), allergy pills, Tylenol, an extra sweater, Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, Sanditon, and Elisabeth Thomas’s debut novel, Catherine House.  I was ready for…the suburbs?

I read a bit of Sanditon, which is charming, and then I started Catherine House, a fast-paced, entertaining, odd little book, which I may  have confused with  another new novel which I think was compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

It is true that Catherine House is a college novel, albeit portrayed through a lens of SF and horror.  Thomas has a knack for spare, muted sentences that create the perfect unobtrusive background for a sinister plot.  The narrator, Ines, a first-year student, has a brooding presence and is not entirely enchanted with the school; cynicism keeps her cognizant of the director’s dangerous charisma.  On the other hand, she feels lucky to have  been accepted at any college, let alone Catherine House, an exclusive three-year college famous for its research on a substance called “plasm.”  All of the students consider themselves lucky to be there, to the point that they don’t worry about the college’s cult-like culture.   They agree not to leave campus until after graduation, and are denied the internet, TV, newspapers, and magazines, and contact with their families.  

Ines skips classes–she is not particularly academic–and devotes her time to drinking too much, blacking out, and having lots of sex (why doesn’t anyone in these books get STDs, I mused). She is disturbed by mandatory sessions of chanting led by the director and enhanced by plasm, given in the form of acupuncture needles.  When her plasm-obsessed roommate, Baby, a brilliant but nervous girl who eccentrically picks locks to relax, is found dead, Ines wonders what happened.  But somehow she can’t follow this line of thought, because there is nothing for her out in the world.

Several of Ines’s friends have doubts about Catherine House, but also have nowhere to go.  And one sees there’s a pattern in the student population.  

This novel is not perfect–the plot falters a bit near the end– but it is an enjoyable little novel.  It’s not Donna Tartt:  I call it “Wuthering Heights meets Enid Blyton and Frankenstein.” But this will be fun for fans of SF/fantasy college novels like The Magicians by Lev Grossman and Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergei Dyachenko.  It especially reminds me of the latter.

2 thoughts on “A College for Lost Souls: Elisabeth Thomas’s “Catherine House””

  1. This is the second review I’ve seen of this book. The other blogger enjoyed it rather more, I think, than you did. Having spent most of my life in educational institutions of one sort or another, I’m always fascinated by books in that setting so if, or when, the libraries reopen I shall keep an eye out for it.

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