REVIEW: The Dumb House by John Burnside

This novel was incredibly difficult to rank on Goodreads 5-point star system. It almost defies rating.

The plot follows Luke, a man of an unidentifiable age, and his life following the death of his mother. Fascinated by the story that his mother tells him of ‘The Dumb House’, an experiment where children were raised in silence to test whether speech was innate, the novel concludes with Luke violently experimenting on his own children. That’s really all you need to know (I can’t really say more without ruining it) and unbelievably, the book is darker and more twisted than it sounds.

I ended up giving The Dumb House 3 stars, simply because I knew 2 stars was too low for the quality of the writing, but the content couldn’t quite exceed a 3. So many people on Goodreads adore this book, but I just can’t see it. I love books that lean towards the darker side, but so much of the violence and unsettling happenings of this book seemed unnecessary. The novel is self-indulgent, and its treatment of women goes, in my opinion, completely unexplained. I understand that Luke is not your standard narrator, with some readers calling him borderline sociopathic, but I struggled to see the purpose of what Burnside was writing. Perhaps there wasn’t one, but the sexual abuse of potentially underage girls shouldn’t be thrown in for an undetermined reason.

The novel frequently seems out of pace with itself – the beginning third of the book focuses on a character who again, seems to exist for Luke’s pleasure – and the experiment on the twins, which is used as a sort of selling point, takes part in a minimal portion of the text.

Reading this review back to myself, I realise that it doesn’t match up with my claim that this is a 3 star book. Despite my complaints about the novel, something about it caught and held my attention. At times the writing was rambling, but I never became bored of reading it. It’s like a disturbing crime on a TV show that you can’t quite look away from. That being said, reading another Burnside novel isn’t high on my list of priorities.

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