Elisabeth Thomas Dazzles With Her Debut Novel ‘Catherine House’

catherine-houseThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

There’s something about boarding school stories that captivate readers. Many of us were introduced to the genre via Harry Potter, and that allure — those endless forays into the dark recesses of a school concealing both danger and treasure in its depths — keeps us coming back for more.

Elisabeth Thomas’ compelling debut, Catherine House, is no exception to this standard. If anything, the author molded her novel not only out of the boarding school genre but also from the Gothic tradition of writers like Daphne du Maurier, throwing in elements of Isaac Asimov-driven science fiction. The premise of a highly-selective, elite, private college sequestering its students for three years and immersing them in a mysterious curriculum hooks readers from the opening page. As we follow Ines — a young woman running from her past and for whom Catherine House is a fresh start — the secrets of this prestigious institution come to light, and we must wonder if anyone ever really leaves.

In an environment that is equal parts academic rigor and bacchanalian antics, Ines fully commits herself to the latter, seldom attending classes and nearly failing out of Catherine after her first year. The hazy aspects of her potentially criminal past prevent her from fully engaging with anything as she struggles to get ahold of herself and find her footing at the school. She soon comes to learn, however, that almost everyone at Catherine has a reason for wanting to leave the real world behind for the gilded promises of this fantasy school, even if those golden edges appear to be hiding structures full of rot. For some of Ines’ peers, like Theo and her roommate Baby, the allure of “plasm” — a revolutionary substance found in all matter, and a substance for which the school is infamous — brought them in the first place.

When Ines’ first year comes to an end, and plasm is introduced to new students as a strange Pavlovian grooming tool, her fascination and suspicion of the substance begins to take hold, especially when Baby’s obsession with it leads to her untimely death. In her third year, Ines becomes embroiled in the school’s questionable practices relating to plasm studies, and in the end, there are only two choices: stay at Catherine forever or escape.

In her first turn, Thomas delivers an impressive, eerie debut novel where the shimmering prestige of Catherine House masks a macabre underbelly of secrets and tragedy. What should be a path to healing and self-discovery for Ines becomes a sinister pull of forces beyond her control, inching her closer to confusion and doubt. Once readers enter the world of Catherine House, they too won’t be able to leave until the very last page is turned.

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