‘The Dumb House’ by John Burnside

My rating: 5 stars

Can a dark and twisted novel be absolutely beautiful? The Dumb House by John Burnside proves that it is possible. Although the story being told utterly shocked me, it also left me in awe of the way in which the words were exquisitely put together. I became completely immersed in the story, being both marvelled and shaken to the core.

The story is narrated in the first person by Luke (whose name is only mentioned more than halfway through the novel). When he was a child, his mother told him the story of the Dumb House. According to the tale, a dyslexic emperor named Akbar the Mughal ordered a mansion to be built. There he kept new-born babies attended by people who were dumb. The purpose of such an experiment was to test whether language was innate or learnt.

Luke developed an obsession not only with this topic, but also with the question of life and death, and the existence of a soul. Even as a child, he performed experiments on small animals by dissecting them. His obsession deepens to the point where he performs experiments on his own children. The story starts with him mentioning this fact and then goes back in time to explain how he got to that point.

Throughout the narration, he mentions many episodes that took place during his childhood. His relationship with his parents was quite strange. He seems to have developed a kind of obsession with his mother, mentioning her always as “Mother” with a capital letter. On the other hand, he remembers his father with contempt and as inferior in comparison with him and his mother.

The way the story is told mirrors, to a certain extent, the tale of the Dumb House, as it has both a dark and a beautiful side. The narrator notes that the tale told to him by his mother had beautiful descriptions of the place where the babies were kept, though what interested him was the experiment being performed. In the same way, this book is beautifully written, featuring great metaphors and comparisons, such as “my skin was stretched tight as a drum”. However, what Luke made to the babies and what the other characters who crossed his path had to endure is horrific.

The best way to describe The Dumb House is to call it psychological horror. This is a book that got me emotionally invested. So, I definitely want to read more by John Burnside in the future and see if his other books are just as good.


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