I recently learned the term Dark Academia, and while I’m probably too old to be a part of the subculture, I wish I’d had a name for it earlier. Schools and colleges with dark secrets have long been one of my favorite forms of literary catnip. It was probably inevitable that I’d be interested in Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House (2020), the story of a rudderless young woman attending a most unusual college.
The titular Catherine House is “not just a school, but a cloister.” Students who are accepted into its selective three-year program are confined to the rambling House and its grounds for the duration of their education. Catherine is cagey about its admissions criteria, but they don’t involve wealth or family legacy, so the novel’s cast is refreshingly more diverse than the usual white trust fund babies that often populate these exclusive-private-school stories. Catherine also believes that the mind fares best when it has a release valve, so some degree of debauchery is encouraged as long as students keep up with their coursework.
Ines, at first, is not so good at the latter. She was a good student when she first applied to Catherine, but between her application and her admission, something terrible happened and left her traumatized and adrift. She only goes ahead with her schooling because she fears worse things in the outside world. So she throws herself into the drinking and sex, but not so much her studies. Gradually, though, she begins to make friends, and also realizes that she won’t be able to stay unless she buckles down a bit.
Catherine House is a character in its own right, a labyrinthine mishmash of several architectural styles, filled with luxurious furnishings but falling apart if you look at it too closely. And there are secrets at its heart: the mysterious cutting-edge science that makes up Catherine’s most selective department, and its connection to a cultlike initiation ritual that awaits all of Catherine’s students.
Thomas spins a suspenseful yarn, and perfectly captures the dreamlike bubble that college can sometimes seem to be, and the ambivalent feeling of not being sure whether one wants to graduate and leave, or not. I’ve seen comparisons to The Secret History, but for me the vibe was more Waking the Moon — except where Sweeney was expelled, Ines gets to stay, which is a mixed blessing indeed.
The one hiccup for me was the speculative element, which wasn’t quite believable for me either as magic or as science. The effects of it are appropriately chilling, but the mechanics of it were kind of a head-scratcher. I can kind of see it if I squint, but I was hoping for a little more explanation. This may be an issue of genre expectations and going into literary gothic fiction with my sci-fi goggles on.
Here’s a spoiler. Highlight if you want to read it: The ending seems ambiguous on the surface, but there’s a little detail in it that made my blood run cold when I realized what it meant. And by the time you get to this point, you will be turning over the events of the plot, looking at them from different angles, wondering just how much of what happened was planned all along.
I used to announce, after finishing this book or that, that I planned to reread it regularly. I know myself well enough now that I know I can never really predict this, but I will say that Catherine House has a lot of the qualities that do often lead to rereads for me. I can definitely see myself going back to this book to see what other details I can catch, or just to sink into the gothic atmosphere. If you, too, enjoy stories of academia gone wrong, Catherine House should be on your TBR list.