It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of boarding-school and campus novels. I love fiction set in any kind of institution of education anyway, and these settings combine that with another of my favourite tropes, the set-piece where all the action is confined to one building or location. 2019 and early 2020 have seen a flurry of these kind of novels, but so far, I’ve found them all disappointing. Neither Rory Power’s Wilder Girls, Clare Beams’s The Illness Lesson nor Rachel Donohue’s The Temple House Vanishing worked for me. So, I was thrilled, as I ventured deeper into the world of Elisabeth Thomas’s debut, Catherine House, to realise that I’d finally found exactly what I’m looking for, while realising that the kind of resonances Thomas picks up on might not chime quite so perfectly with all readers.
Catherine House is set in the mid-1990s, in that convenient period for writers where a lot of the trappings still feel reasonably contemporary but you don’t have to deal with the problems introduced by widespread access to the internet and mobile devices. It has a intriguing premise: Catherine House is a rural Pennsylvanian institution of higher education that educates all its students for free, with free room and board, for all three years of their degree. The catch: during that time, you can’t leave Catherine House and its grounds, and only very limited contact with the outside world is allowed. Even in a time before the student debt crisis in America had hit its current peak, you can see why this might be a tempting offer, and, even better, Catherine graduates are known for forging illustrious careers. It’s certainly a godsend for our narrator, Ines, who is running from her previous life. At first, the rumours of the school’s mysterious scientific experiments with ‘plasm’ don’t really impinge on Ines’s life, but then she’s gradually drawn in…
The novel’s blurb pins it as a cross between Sarah Waters and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but – while there’s a hint of Hailsham in the way that Catherine students relate to the institution – I thought what the book did most brilliantly was reinvent the kind of YA supernatural thrillers that I devoured in the 1990s and early 2000s. For example, Lois Duncan’s Down A Dark Hall and L.J. Smith’s Dark Visions trilogy also depict students at an exclusive institution that wants to explore and perhaps exploit their uncanny abilities. Thomas captures the tense, immersive atmosphere of these novels while using the greater space afforded by contemporary adult fiction to build her world. I loved the fact that she also inverts a number of familiar tropes from this kind of fiction. Most satisfyingly, Ines is not a reluctant outsider to the Catherine community, but, after some initial doubts, settles in with a close group of friends. This allows Thomas to say much more interesting things about our desire to belong and work communally than if she had made Ines the typical rebellious heroine.
Catherine House depicts a group of people who are isolated but still connected, wrapped up in a hallucinatory world of deep winter snows and hazy hot summers, with enough creepily oblique references to the plasm experiments (‘I read everything I could about Catherine… Even the mean [articles] – the ones after Shiner’) to keep the plot taut. In short, I found it a perfect read for right now, and I’m just sorry that it’s over!
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 12th May. If you’re interested and able to do so, please consider pre-ordering from Hive, from Waterstones, or from your local independent bookshop to support authors and bookshops at this time.