Occasionally a debut novel comes along that is so unlike anything else that readers struggle with it for various reasons. Catherine House by Elizabeth Thomas is just such a book. No doubt, readers will be divided on it, but there is the sense that history will look back on Catherine House as an important work bringing to light a new voice.
Part of the “problem” is that Catherine House is impossible to categorize. It falls into a large grouping of academia-set novels, but it also has elements of the Gothic, tons of mystery, a dash of romance, and even some sci-fi/fantasy vibes. Literary is a word that is assigned to novels where the writing is paramount to plot and content; that too can be said about this particular debut, but not in any way that casts it as a negative. Thomas spends much of the page space setting a unique atmosphere for her characters to exist within. It is this mood that seduces the reader and almost hypnotizes with a feeling of unease. While there are times when not much is actually happening, the power is in the spell the reader falls under.
Ines Murillo has come to Catherine House to escape her past, as well as to better her future. As she struggles to orient herself in the strange landscape that is this school, readers are equally discombobulated, having no real idea what is going on. This is a shorter novel, so readers spend most, maybe all, of that time in this amorphous dream-like state, where anything – and nothing – can be true, simultaneously. Students are required to devote three years to the Catherine House, so the novel is split into three sections. Along with Ines, two other characters gain prominence. Baby, is Ines’ roommate and her self-doubt and naïveté clash with the other students and environs to a destructive level. And then there is the mysterious Viktória, the director of Catherine House – part mother, part teacher, part leader, and completely bizarre.
Like many of the great novels, Catherine House will thrive when placed next to future novels by its creator. Elizabeth Thomas has a vital perspective to impart on the literary world – not simply because she brings much needed diversity to the forefront, but also because she comes at everything from a fresh and exciting angle. Sure, some of that is because she is a writer of color, but the bulk of it really rests on her ability to see new ways to genre-hop without the constraints of tradition to hold her back. Right now, that may prove to be challenging for readers, however time will likely show that hybrid-novels that defy compartmentalization are just what the reading public wants – and needs. Elizabeth Thomas just got there before everyone else.
Disclaimer: A print galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the author. No review was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.