Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

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

3 re-read:

I once again loved this. The novel’s gothic ambience is truly hypnotic and Thomas really manages to suffuse Ines’ experiences at Catherine House with a dreamlike quality. There is a vagueness, a haze, one that makes many scenes opaque, unreachable. Yet, there are moments were the description are bursting with vibrancy: from the tantalising food descriptions to the attention paid to the changing seasons. This novel merits descriptors such as lush, sensual, and atmospheric. But, despite my very first impression, which had me dismiss this book as superficial and affected, I now feel an affinity to Ines, despite her remoteness. The novel doesn’t present us with solid character development or particularly multi-dimensional characters, but I believe that Thomas does capture the essence of the people in Ines’ lives, and stays true to her protagonist impression of them. There is also a subtle yet nevertheless palpable sense of ‘wrongness’ permeating Catherine House, and Thomas’ sensuous and ethereal language really captures that. The use of repetition—be it words or imagery—is also highly effective as it gives the story a lulling rhythm that is hard to ignore.

Set in the 90s Catherine House follows Ines Murillo and her 3 years at Catherine House, a private college-like institution shrouded in mystery. One of the college’s central tenets is that its students (and teachers) should leave their past behind, and they are discouraged (read: forbidden) from discussing their families, childhoods, or any of their experiences or attachments they may have formed prior their arrival CH. They will spend the next 3 years in CH, were they have almost no contact with the outside world, meanwhile they can buy things (such as hair products, clothes, trinkets) and earn certain freedoms through a ‘points’ system. Not only are they closely monitored but they have to abide strict and obscure rules that see them taking part in happenings of a rather esoteric nature.
Much about CH remains unknown to us, and even the architecture of house itself seems just beyond Ines’ and our grasp. By giving us very little information CH acquires an air of ambiguity that really accentuates the narrative enigmatic tone. Ines’ character too is a mystery, and I found myself simultaneously able to empathize with her and to feel slightly puzzled by her outlook and behaviour. She very much reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s heroines, in particular, the peculiar & alienated protagonist of Hangsaman, Natalie Waite. They both often dissociate themselves from their surroundings and have a tendency to perceive their world and understand their experiences through dark yet fairy-talesque lenses.
There are also certain lines that really reminded me of Jackson’s work: “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.”
Style and atmosphere wise I was also reminded of Magda Szabó’s Abigail, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and Vita Nostra.
Sure, there are certain minor points that I could question or criticise but ultimately I found the writing and Ines’ voice so spellbinding that those didn’t really matter. I mean, I read this twice in 6 months, so it safe to say that I absolutely loved it.


…turns out I actually love this now…?!

The first time I read this I was not impressed but this second time around…well, I loved it. It isn’t an easy book and I can sort of see why it could come across as frustrating…but if you are in the mood for a dreamy and ambiguous Gothic-y read you should consider giving Catherine House a go. If you are a fan of authors such as Shirley Jackson and Helen Oyeyemi, you will probably ‘vibe’ with this book. Speaking of vibes, I saw someone describe this as a book all about vibes and I have to agree. There is a strong focus on the atmosphere of Catherine House and Thomas pays particular attention to the smells and flavours Ines encounters in its walls. Throughout the narrative Thomas juxtaposes beauty with decay, and there were plenty of lush descriptions contrasting the two. Nature too has a role in this story and I loved how Ines describes the seasons.
I loved Ines and her ‘sideways’ perspective. Thomas beautifully articulates Ines’ conflicting feelings about Catherine House and I truly felt for her. I also loved her friendship group, often their scenes together eased some of the tension from the narrative.
Basically, this second time I loved everything about this novel: the eerie setting, the ominous nature of plasm, Ines, her friends, the beautiful writing, the dreamlike atmosphere…
I can’t wait to read this again (and maybe write a more cohesive review).

1st read:
I initially gave this book 3 stars and was rather unimpressed by it (i deleted my og review as the views i expressed there are no longer of relevance). What I suggest is that you learn from my mistake and do not approach this book excepting the usual dark-academia type of campus novel (that has a clear arc etc.).

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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