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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Dumb House

John Burnside

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Title: The Dumb House
Author: John Burnside
Genre: Novel
Written: 1997
Length: 198 pages
Availability: The Dumb House - US
The Dumb House - UK
The Dumb House - Canada
La maison muette - France
  • A Chamber Novel

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Our Assessment:

B : very well written, quite well done, but a nasty bit of work.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A 15/5/1997 Fiachra Gibbons
The NY Time Book Rev. A- 12/7/1998 James Saynor
The Sunday Times A 19/7/1998 Trevor Lewis
The Sunday Times A- 6/6/1998 Martin Higgins
TLS . 23/5/1997 Phil Baker

  Review Consensus:

  Everyone is very impressed by what Burnside has accomplished -- despite themselves.

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a beautiful but not an easy book. It asks many hard questions. At times Burnside, with that iron discipline only the best poets have, risks running his reverie of the banal dangerously close to dullness. Yet you slip into it like a cold fever, and find yourself re-reading it against your will, caught in its nightmare of repeating patterns." - Fiachra Gibbons, The Guardian

  • "The tale is refined, cerebral and depraved in such full measures that the reader is left with few conventional moral markers to hold onto." - James Saynor, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The level-headed depiction of insanity, the clinically detached prose and slowly mounting horror that the story so ruthlessly enacts makes for a book that is guaranteed to put ice in your veins." - Trevor Lewis, The Sunday Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Poet John Burnside's first novel is an accomplished work. Simple but eloquent, the tone is seductive and interesting. Burnside writes well, and he has a decent idea, too. The Dumb House -- the title is based on Mughal emperor Akbar's experiment: trying to get at the roots of language he had children raised by mutes to see if and how language would develop in such an environment. They are old questions -- what is language ? is it innate or acquired ? how does it develop ? -- and Burnside's narrator, Luke, is obsessed by them.
       The ideas are promising enough, but Burnside's hero is also obsessed with and too close to his mother and ... well, not entirely sane. And Burnside feels obligated to have him do nasty things. There are four murders in the book (three committed by our narrator), plus a cat-killing and numerous instances of vivisection -- and a death that could probably have been prevented with proper medical attention. And a particularly nasty finger-breaking episode.
       Why do these things happen ? Well, yes, Burnside surely means to say something about communication and human interaction and the consequences of the lack thereof -- there is some sort of bizarre moral to the tale, surely. But most of it seems to us to be almost utterly gratuitous and sensationalistic violence. Almost all of it, certainly, is entirely unconvincing. The last few years have seen more than their fair share of such arbitrarily violent fiction (particularly from Scots authors); in Burnside's case it seems particularly gratuitous. (The hint of insanity, the cheapest and most banal of excuses, is the least appealing but presumably the expected explanation. Yeah, that's something new. Yawn.)
       The experimentalist Luke is, occasionally, an interesting character. He wants to get to the root of the language -- an admirable goal. And he saves a poor dumb ill-treated lass, Lillian, and treats her quite well. But she bears him twins, and temptation gets the better of him and he undertakes his great experiment.
       We know what happens to the twins -- he acknowledges it early on -- but it is never quite clear why it comes to this. Luke turns out not to be a very rigorous experimentalist, though he gets quite caught up in his little project. Its turns seem quite unconvincing, done merely to allow him a convenient excuse for ridding himself of the kids.
       It is a bizarre and ultimately truly repellent tale. It is redeemed only because the ideas behind it are fundamentally interesting (though Burnside's tangents do their best to take it off course) and because Burnside writes very well. Luke's narrative is vague and dreamy -- he explains very little carefully -- but written in such a manner that the reader fills in the many blanks him or herself. It is not a particularly convincing narrative (how can Luke spend his time as he does ? how can he hide two babes as he does ?) but it reads well.
       It is an ugly tale, but well-told. We can not really recommend it -- it seems a waste, indeed almost a perversion of talent -- but it is not without some value. To be read critically -- but probably worth reading, on some level.

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The Dumb House: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       Scottish author John Burnside was born in 1955. Author of several poetry collections, he has also published several novels.

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