Thais reviews Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

I loved this book. I loved it so much that I immediately binned the other review I had planned for this month, even though I do not have the slightest idea of how to properly describe and criticize this book. I know a lot of people hated Catherine House, so I wanted to make this clear from the get go—I loved this book.

I tend to love experimental works of fiction and Catherine House is very much that. It mixes gothic horror and the campus novel genre to tell a story better suited for a thriller, and it does so by using a structure that is unashamedly literary, heavy in atmosphere and imagery that drips with details and repetition of motifs.

There is still plenty of plot, even some elements that put the book in the speculative fiction category, but Catherine House is the story of a young college girl still in the grip of depression and guilt for falling with the wrong crowd and spiraling through a couple of neglected years that led to trauma and self-loathing, and you will get exactly that from the narration.

Ines is depressed and at times (and for long stretches of time at that), the book follows her depression, her inability to pull herself out of her fog, to follow up on her curiosity, to even be alarmed at the sinister undercurrent that seems surround this place to which she has just committed three years of her life. And that is a hefty commitment.

Because Catherine House is not just any fictional elite college, it is a place that demands its students distance themselves from everyone in their lives, including their past selves. Like a cult, Catherine House demands that each student gives themselves to the school completely, and we start a story with the new class of students that has done just that arriving at their new, secretive home.

Some of them are already a bit cautious, but for the most part, students are seduced into this free, top-tier institution that promises them success in life, if they surrender every part of themselves to it.

Even to me, it felt seductive. I tend to avoid any media that has elements of horror, because I struggle with insomnia as it is. I was reluctant to pick this up, but the beautiful prose lured me in, and soon I was moving deeper and deeper into the house with Ines, wondering with her what ‘plasm’ was and why it had so many of her classmates so obsessed, getting horrified with her by the creepy meditations the school imposed. But like Ines, I also felt drawn to School Director Viktória, even as I could tell from the start that she was evil.

Viktória might have actually been the most seductive part of all. Ines is bisexual and that is established early on in the narrative, so her obsession with the beautiful, mysterious older woman who runs Catherine House felt sexual at first. Ines did not yearn for Viktória quite that way, but her eyes still follow Viktória whenever she is around, keeping herself apart from everything and overly involved with everyone at the same time. In a room full of people, Ines only ever has eyes for Viktória, for every minute detail of her appearance and demeanor.

It is not romantic, but Ines’ gaze feels desire. She can’t stop drinking in Viktória, basking in her presence.

Viktória, for her part, seems all too happy to cast herself as nurturing and maternal, but also seems to display a predatory interest for Ines, never crossing the line, but often making sure she gets Ines alone and disarms her with long talks, probing questions into her interests, lingering touches.

At the end, I couldn’t help but feel more than allured by the school, Ines was allured by Viktória, and that the horror of the book lies primarily with this deeply dysfunctional relationship.

While Ines has a long-term relationship with one of male characters, Theo, even that felt like tethered to Viktória—Viktória tells her to be social, to immerse herself in the school, to make deep ties that anchor her to Catherine and Ines does.

Other than her friendships with her roommate Baby and with another young black woman called Yaya, all of Ines’ actions seem performative even to herself, a way to show that she’s becoming good, that she’s becoming worthy.

No matter how sinister the school got, I found it impossible to pull away and I think the main reason for that were all those entangled, complicated relationships between women (and mostly women of color at that).

I was so entranced by the relationships in the story that it didn’t bother me very much that the aspects of the book that tended a bit towards science fiction were never fleshed out or that a lot of the later reveals in the book are a bit predictable. I also imagine some people might have had problems with the pace of the story, but like I said before, I expected literary, experimental, with small touches of horror, and Catherine House delivers on that.

If you want a satisfactory plot with clear resolutions, this might not be the book for you, but if you are craving something moody, with lots of description of winter in rural Pennsylvania and complex (and sometimes infuriating) female characters, I think you will like this.

Danika reviews In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Trigger warning: This review discusses emotional abuse. 

I have been simultaneously excited for and dreading reading In the Dream House since I first heard of its existence. I absolutely loved Her Body and Other Parties as well as Machado’s edition of Carmillaso those put her books on my automatic must read list. This memoir, though, is about a same-sex emotionally abusive relationship: a subject I think needs to be discussed more, and is also something that gets under my skin. I knew that Machado would handle it incredibly–but I also knew that skill would carry the risk of reliving some painful moments in my own history. I was right on both counts.

Machado is an incredible writer. This is a book that experiments with the genre of memoir, explores the history of abuse between women (and its invisibility in the archive), includes a choose your own adventure section, and manages to make a recap of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode a chilling counterpart to the main narrative. In the Dream House is divided into very short sections, usually between 1-3 pages. Each examines the “dream house” (where this relationship took place) from different angles: “The Dream House as Gothic Romance,” “The Dream House as Folk Lore,” “The Dream House as Famous Last Words.” Some are vignettes from her relationship. Some are academic essays on topics like 1940s Gothic Romance movies, or queer-coded villains. I found myself taking picture after picture on my phone of these short works, wanting to refer back to them.

Although this is not a book of theory by any means, Machado weaves in the academic so that it complements the story–and also makes me, for a second, want to be back in academia. Her explorations, regardless of the topic, are fascinating. Did you know that 1946 had the highest divorce rate in the U.S.? Do you know why? Throughout the book, there are footnotes referring to the MotifIndex of Folk-Literature, a book I was confident didn’t exist (Machado used a similar technique in Carmilla), but I see now is a real, 6 volume catalogue. For example, in “Dream House as Famous Last Words,” the woman in the dream house (she never gets a name), says “We can fuck, but we can’t fall in love.” The footnote that follows refers to “Omens in love affairs.”

Of course, this is a book about abuse. It follows their relationship from its cheery promise to nightmare reality. It’s not my experience, but it still felt like someone putting words to an experience I have never been able to properly voice. Machado explores the nature of abuse in queer relationships: the tangle of feelings about “lesbian utopias” being shattered, about violence and abuse as gender-coded, about feeling the need for both of you and your relationship to be positive representation. That by naming the abuse, you will only validate homophobic people’s views. “Years later, if I could say anything to her, I’d say, ‘For fuck’s sake, stop making us look bad.'”

For me, that really hit home. It made me think about the trap that queer people find themselves in an abusive relationship: the need to protect our abuser in order to protect the greater queer community/image. Also, the idea that our partner can’t possibly be abusive, because they are a victim. They are marginalized. In the victim/oppressor binary, someone can’t occupy both spaces, right? But I realized that it goes one step further than that, something that likely every person in an abusive relationship has felt: protecting the relationship in order to protect yourself. Because to show the abuse is to show that you were wrong. Misguided. That you misjudged the situation. You were foolish. Everyone else could see it, so how could you not? The more obvious the abuse, the more shameful it is to voice it or to attempt to escape. It’s an emotional sunk cost fallacy. Of course, this isn’t true. Victims of abuse should never be judged in this way. But it’s another way to keep people trapped.

Carmen Maria Machado is an incredible author, and I will continue to pick up anything that she ever writes. I highly recommend In the Dream House, but be prepared for an in-depth exploration of emotional abuse.