The Dumb House by John Burnside


“No one could say it was my choice to kill the twins, any more that it was my decision to bring them into the world.” – this quote isn’t a spoiler, by the way, it’s just the opening line.

There has been a lot of hype about this book in the little corner of Booktube that I frequent, promising it to be a dark, disturbing but fascinating read, which is exactly what it was.

As a young child, out narrator Luke is an only child growing up in a home with an emotionally distant mother and physically distant father who attempts to bridge the gap between his son and himself (and I think to make up for the lack of love he receives from his wife) by giving him things any old thing he asks for. Luke’s relationship with his mother is an odd one, she doesn’t seem to enjoy intimate relationships, but also obviously loves her son and so their only closeness is formed by telling and retelling stories to him. One particular story is about a Persian King who’s religion or culture believes that language is innate, and that even if a child is never exposed to spoken word, over time it will naturally develop speech in his or hers national dialect, regardless. The king sets to disprove this theory by creating an environment filled with newborn children who are attended by Mutes, and therefor depriving them of language from birth, he calls the place The Dumb House. So Luke becomes fixated with this idea, combining it with his twinned fascination with dead and dying things in search of discovering the physical location of the soul. As he grows his pursuit becomes more obsessive, more scientific, and after the death of his mother he decides it is finally the time to conduct his own Dumb House Experiment, on his own children.

Every single thing about this book is entirely effed up, from Luke’s gross misinterpretation of ethics to his total lack of morality I was hooked from the very first page. The story is told in first person as Luke documents the events of his life and his ‘scientific’ pursuits, and because of this, there is no objective voice to highlight the strangeness of his activities save for one in your own head repeatedly asking you WTF? He totally normalizes his textbook psychopathic activities in a way that reminded me very much of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, and his feelings as an adult towards his mother were about as Norman Bate’s as you can get without storing a corpse in your basement and maybe it’s just me, but there is something incredibly fascinating about the detachment and cold logic of an all out psychopath. Perhaps its that while I can’t agree with their actions, I can’t fault their logic. The whole book was page after page of behavior and thought processes that left me stunned in their flippant disregard for human life, but I couldn’t look away. I dragged out what should have been a quick read of 200-odd pages over the course of more than a week because I’d become so consumed by Luke’s peculiar perspective and unique insight and didn’t quite want to let it go, which in itself is quite unsettling.

The Dumb House is an astonishingly well written book, but definitely not one for the feint of heart. I can’t wait to read more from this author.



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