Ninth House

  • Review
By – January 11, 2021

Alex Stern feels dis­tinct­ly out of place at Yale. She’s per­pet­u­al­ly try­ing to catch up on school work and social com­mit­ments, all while accli­mat­ing to her work as a mem­ber of Lethe — one of Yale’s secret soci­eties tasked with reg­u­lat­ing the mag­ic of the eight oth­er soci­eties, whose rit­u­als range from weath­er changes to stock mar­ket pre­dic­tion. As the nar­ra­tive shifts back and forth between Alex’s per­spec­tive and that of her men­tor, Dar­ling­ton, read­ers begin to under­stand how Alex’s sec­ond chance at Yale slow­ly spi­raled into chaos. Alex was offered the oppor­tu­ni­ty to attend the uni­ver­si­ty after a bru­tal night in her Los Ange­les apart­ment that leaves only her unscathed phys­i­cal­ly. She is cho­sen because of her abil­i­ty to see Grays, or ghosts, which most peo­ple are unable to per­ceive with­out a mag­i­cal elixir.

The world of Yale and its inhab­i­tants is a change from Alex’s pre­vi­ous life as girl­friend to a drug deal­er and a high-school dropout. Grow­ing up with her flighty moth­er, she only felt secure with her grand­moth­er, who spoke to her in Ladi­no. Yale offers the pos­si­bil­i­ty of short- and long-term sta­bil­i­ty, but Alex strug­gles to find time to do all the class work on top of all her mag­i­cal reg­u­la­to­ry duties. At the begin­ning of the spring semes­ter, a mur­der takes place on cam­pus. With­out Dar­ling­ton to offer guid­ance, she goes a bit off book in order to fol­low her hunch­es. As she becomes increas­ing­ly aware of the secrets of the soci­eties, she real­izes that the world of Yale doesn’t oper­ate so dif­fer­ent­ly from the one she’s used to.

Loca­tion plays an inte­gral role in Ninth House. The stu­dents of Yale live in a pro­tect­ed, priv­i­leged sphere while the res­i­dents of eco­nom­i­cal­ly down­trod­den New Haven are not afford­ed the same secu­ri­ty. Alex tries to nav­i­gate this stark divide, which can be seen in the neglect of the city streets ver­sus the groomed col­lege cam­pus — as well as in the way stu­dents are treat­ed ver­sus res­i­dents of the town — by advo­cat­ing for the women she sees as left behind by the sys­tem. She feels a kin­ship with them because of their posi­tion with­in society.

This dichoto­my between town and col­lege fur­ther empha­sizes the socioe­co­nom­ic divi­sions that Alex sees oper­at­ing in Yale and her larg­er world that keep age-old sys­tems of oppres­sion in place. The one thing that seems to cross all bor­ders is drugs. Bar­dugo por­trays mag­i­cal and more mun­dane drugs in both of these spheres — from red solo cups to enchant­ed mist machines — and the read­er watch­es par­ties reach new, often ter­ri­fy­ing, heights that bring up the issue of con­sent and repercussions.

Eth­i­cal ques­tions arise again and again for Alex, and she ulti­mate­ly takes things into her own hands to mete out jus­tice as she des­per­ate­ly looks for sup­port. The pow­er and pres­tige of a few is always just around the cor­ner, wait­ing to bring Alex back down into what she per­ceives as ingong­mi­ty. But she is deter­mined to make her sit­u­a­tion at Yale per­ma­nent and secure a sta­ble, safe future for her­self. She won’t let the liv­ing or the dead stand in her way.

Simona is the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s man­ag­ing edi­tor of dig­i­tal con­tent and mar­ket­ing. She grad­u­at­ed from Sarah Lawrence Col­lege with a con­cen­tra­tion in Eng­lish and His­to­ry and stud­ied abroad in India and Eng­land. Pri­or to the JBC she worked at Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press. Her writ­ing has been fea­tured in LilithThe Nor­mal School, Dig­ging through the Fat, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She holds an MFA in fic­tion from The New School. 

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