Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Black Gothic Literature.

An Exclusive Interview by Dakotah Jennifer

Photo provided by Harper Collins

Elisabeth Thomas’s debut novel, Catherine House, though it is a mysterious and gothic page-turner, is based in a very real and complex feeling - finding home.

Catherine House is the story of a girl, Ines Murillo, who is accepted into an eccentric, prestigious private college with dark, sinister secrets. Catherine House is known for its mysterious ability to produce brilliant, successful people—presidents, judges, prize-winning authors, inventors, and artists. The school provides everything, free of charge. It is extremely selective and promises power and prestige, but only if you completely remove yourself from the outside world for all three years of the program, including summers. Catherine, even from the first page, is a “brutal, flawless” entity, in the same way, many private, prestigious institutions can be. Ines is on the run from a dark past life and though the school has unfathomable secrecy and peculiar protocols, she finds a new home there. Thomas writes with precision and authenticity, while also portraying the supernaturally strange atmosphere. In just the first few pages, Ines tells herself that she is not excited, but relieved as her heart beats fast in her chest, and already we feel with her — Thomas shows us exactly how you can be running from something and miraculously find…home. This novel, most expertly, seems to pinpoint a specific and intricate sentiment that Thomas experiences with her Alma Mater. Yale University mirrors a feeling of loving the place you call home, despite being trapped with its strange, dark, and somehow forgivable flaws.

As a child, Thomas’s father nearly forbade her from applying to Yale University, “In our house, Yale reunion invites disappeared into the trash. Calls for alumni donations went straight to the answering machine.” Thomas’s father and grandfather, both alumni of Yale, experienced the racism, power, and exclusivity of the institution firsthand, and they didn’t want that for their daughter. “When it was my turn to apply to college, my dad said, ‘You can go to any school you like, as long as it’s not Yale.’ I chose Yale of course,” Thomas recalls. “Like many black daughters, I was raised to beware of racist, antiquated institutions like Yale. But by the time I went to Yale... I found the school had grown with the times or at least pretended that it had.”

As she began to make a home at Yale, Thomas found a beautifully comforting feeling — the feeling of being home. “I made wild, funny, brilliant friends who came from distant cities and countries but now lived right down the hall, ready for bid whist study breaks or midnight ABBA dance parties. I was happy.” And that happiness, Thomas explains, is complicated. Her love of fairytales, spooky, gothic novels, and “stories of eerie woods and houses haunted by bloody secrets,” greatly influenced both her love of Yale University and the genre of her novel, “...every detail felt so critical and so fleeting. I could see myself, as if from above, in the young, glad moment. I smelled crisp, freshly mown grass, watched light shift on a classroom floor, heard my friends laughing in the hallway, and I thought, yes, here, right here: I am happy now.” This happiness was a theme for Thomas— the happiness she found at Yale, even among the “legacy of racism and hurt,”—and it was exactly this sort of happiness that prestigious institutions sell to this generation...

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