16. ‘The Dumb House’ by John Burnside

I am writing this review of John Burnside’s The Dumb House a mere hour after finishing the book. Usually I leave myself a little longer to let things percolate (at least a few days), but a) I’m running out of time to post a review this week, and b) given that I devoured it in just a few sittings, it makes sense that I plunge straight into the review as well.

The Dumb House is told from the perspective of Luke, a man who has been obsessed with language from an early age. His mother used to tell him the story of ‘the Dumb House’, a luxurious palace where children were supposedly raised, from birth, without any exposure to language, in order to discover whether langauge is learned or innate. Luke is fascinated by this linguistic experiment, and we learn on the first page – almost in the first line – that he is running just such an experiment himself, on his own children.

the dumb house john burnside book review

The Dumb House is an exercise in meticulous agony. The narrative perspective gives us an insight into the mind of a truly disturbed human being, but Burnside balances Luke’s depravity with his cold logic so perfectly that it’s impossible to look away. The reader is never expected to empathise with Luke; instead we are privy to the peculiar mental gymnastics with which he justifies his actions – actions which include violence, rape and murder.

There are several key ways in which Luke justifies what he does. First, he frequently shifts the blame to his victims, claiming that they are provoking or encouraging him in some way. He seems to believe that he can divine what they are thinking, and that they are usually inviting his advances. Second, he distances himself from the people he hurts, usually by comparing them to animals. To him, other people are purely reactionary, primitive, unthinking – dumb in every sense of the word – and this means that he feels no guilt about hurting them. Interestingly, he often infantilises adult women, while attributing a predatory, animal cunning to children. Finally, Luke seems to believe that he is fulfilling some inescapable destiny. Not that he thinks he has been given some great task by a higher power, but rather that this is the course his life is taking and it is impossible that he should deviate from it.

“There is only one possible course through life, and that is the course one takes. No other decisions could have been taken, no other circumstances could have arisen.”

The only thing that detracted from this book – and only ever so slightly – was that sometimes I could see the literary workings showing through. Once I could see that Luke was justifying his actions by comparing people to animals, every instance stood out to me and I could see what Burnside was doing. This isn’t entirely a bad thing – it meant that I could recognise and appreciate Burnside’s talents as I read – but it did occasionally take me out of the story. Once I noticed the tricks, it was less easy to be convinced by them.

Still, I found this book utterly absorbing. I read it in just a few sittings and the combination of grisly subject matter and cold, clinical tone makes for an incredible reading thrill. I highly recommend this book if you want to see the mind of a psychopath from the inside, if for an afternoon you want to indulge in that irresistible frisson of fear.

“In every human interaction, the first and decisive question is: who is in control?”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

Want to read it? You can buy The Dumb House here.

One Comment on “16. ‘The Dumb House’ by John Burnside

  1. John Burnside does write some very strange books. I have yet to read his poetry, but I have read The Locust Room, which is also an unsettling experience, and Waking Up in Toytown, which is a memoir.

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