When Elisabeth Thomas’s “Catherine House” opens, the main character, Ines, is hogging the bathroom she shares with her roommate, Baby. It’s not the most illustrious introduction, and the depiction of her lying naked in an empty bathtub, horribly hung over, doesn’t exactly endear her to the reader. Ines knows she’s not making the best impression: “I’m going to be a really bad roommate,” she tells Baby. Later, during her first class (or, at least, the first one she deigns to attend), she “borrows” a sandwich from a classmate she doesn’t know and proceeds to eat the bulk of it over his protestations.
This negative impression of Ines continues through the first third of the book, as she bumbles her way through her first year at Catherine House, on academic probation as she rarely attends classes. Everything around her screams that she is lucky to be in the hallowed halls of this mysterious institution, one that doesn’t charge her tuition and is intent only on asking Ines to become the best version of herself.
On its surface, Catherine House is an incredibly selective three-year college. Its alumni go on to be the best and brightest. The catch? They must leave everything behind — they aren’t even allowed to talk about their families or homes, much less bring in any material goods. The shedding of the past feels cult-like, and indeed, more than one aspect of the place gives the sense of cult behavior. “That was the Catherine experiment: give the house three years — three profound, total years — then become anything or anyone you want to be. Watch all your dreams come true,” Thomas writes in Ines’s voice.
Over the course of the book, a subtle but monumental shift occurs in the reader’s perspective: Catherine House isn’t the place we thought it was. Institutions aren’t always what they appear to be. The place has its own agenda. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the school is lucky to have Ines, and it’s her subversive attitude that makes her so integral to both the setting and this excellent narrative.
Ines doesn’t quite buy into the school’s mythos — she’s a skeptic from the very beginning. She doesn’t particularly want to give Catherine House her all; she’d really prefer not to be there at all except she doesn’t have anywhere else to go. She sees the cracks in the veneer of the perfect, cloistered image the school is trying to project. Thomas does an incredible job with her descriptions here, helping the reader visualize the decay and neglect lingering under the surface. “I felt as crooked and perverse as ever,” Ines thinks to herself. “Like the house’s many shadows I saw reflected in its dirty windows and mirrors.”
It’s hard to put “Catherine House” into a genre box. It certainly fits the description of a contemplative gothic thriller, but it’s also a coming-of-age story with sci-fi elements sprinkled in. The strength of this debut novel relies on its refusal to adhere to any sort of genre conventions. The plot revolves around the mystery of Catherine House, and the latter half of the book zeroes in on it: something called plasm. This area of research, which strays into the metaphysical, is at the core of what the school is about. Ines’s first encounter with plasm is strange; Thomas doesn’t spend too many words describing the nature of the thing, and she doesn’t need to. Instead, she focuses on its effects, and that colors the entire narrative.
The descriptions in the book are what really ground the story; from the depiction of the varied buildings of Catherine House to the visceral and constant thoughts about food and drink, Thomas builds a thick atmosphere. The book’s setting provides just as much fodder for thought and discussion as do its characters or plot. In fact, plot is secondary to the book as a whole. The novel really centers on the war between two characters, two very strong personalities: Ines and Catherine House itself.
That’s not to say the central mystery of the book — What is plasm and what is Catherine House doing with it? — isn’t relevant. Thomas litters hints throughout, but leaves the reader to piece together the fragments in order to create a whole. The novel’s vagueness is a huge part of its charm, and it underlines the fact that it’s Ines’s journey that is central here, rather than answering questions.
Ines never exactly becomes a likable character, but that hardly matters — the reader becomes emotionally invested in her journey regardless. Thomas is trying to show readers what it feels like to not fit into the place you’re supposed to belong, to not even fit inside your own skin. While the book is easy to read — Thomas’s smart prose ensures that — the echoes of discomfort linger long after the last pages are turned.
And indeed that unease is central to the narrative. To fit in at Catherine House, you must be uncomfortable. “Everyone here was here desperately. All of us, for one reason or another, had nowhere else to go.”
By Elisabeth Thomas
Custom House, 320 pp., $27.99
Swapna Krishna writes about space, technology, and pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @skrishna.