Experiments in Language and the beauty of utter darkness – The dumb house, by John Burnside, book review


incredibly well fitted cover design, both strange and beautiful, and the cappuccino is there because it might be useful to have a nice cup of something while reading it

“No one could say it was my choice to kill the twins, any more than it was my decision to bring them into the world.”
As far as first sentences go, I don’t know if you can do much better than The Dumb House. From the first paragraph, you have everything: the ending, as the rest of the book only leads back to this unalterable fact, the poetic rhythm of the style, questions of choices and free will, and bone-chilling horror.
Now I understand why Burnside is so highly praised (I had recently read “A summer of drowning” which, while it shares some of the poetic coldness of the style and story, really doesn’t have the same power). This is a punch in the stomach – as in, it will not only hit you but make you sick and nauseated. But is is a force to be reckoned with.

Luke, who grew up isolated from other children, has developed a fascination with a story his mother (with whom he had a cohesive relationship – turned to obsession) told him about Akbar, a dyslexic emperor who built a house and filled it with mute servants, to observe children who grew without language, in an experiment to know whether speech is innate or learned, and whether there is a natural pre-Babelian language or not.
Luke is determined to test this predicament, to replicate the experiment, in the purest conditions possible. Purity is a theme of great importance to him, for a reason made clear quite early on, and this obsession to witness a sort of “Garden of Eden state”, to go back to Paradise, where “Everything, then would be inviolate and inviolable” becomes more and more pressing after the death of his mother. This fascination with language, purity, coupled with his desire for control, as he strives to be God or Dr Frankenstein, leads to a gruesome experiment.
The novel is narrated by Luke – as unreliable a narrator as you could find one, since he is probably devoid of any sense of morality, and doesn’t really mind the paradoxes apparent in his motives and explanations. And that is what makes it so fascinating, seeing horror with his point of view, his pseudo-scientific postulates. A one moment he reflects on his decisions and says:
“It’s laughable, looking back, to see the processes I went trough, pretending to make a reasoned decision. No choice is ever made on the basis of logic, the logic is fabricated around the impulse, the initial desire which is innate and incontrovertible. It’s not a question of predestination, it’s just that free will and destiny are illusions, false opposites, consolation. In the end, they are one and the same: a single process.”
This blending of cruel, raw instincts and cold paradoxical logic is what makes him a fascinating character and the perfect narrator for this book: it allows for rapid shifts between self-explained, almost rational moments, and bouts of madness or cruelty, it makes the whole book, written in Luke’s language, a reflection of what he strives to achieve with his experiment: the poetic beauty of the horrible.
Him again, speaking of his mother:“She had shown me the horror of the children’s predicament, through the counsellors’ eyes; at the same time, she had let me understand the beauty of the experiment, through the image of the Dumb House itself: perfect, inscrutable, shining in my mind, like a proposition in geometry, or one of those logical paradoxes that, by itself, can open up a whole new field of thought.”
So it is a book about a horrific experiment on language that the narrator views as perfect and beautiful, that is itself an experiment on speech written with a precise but flowing dark poetic style. I don’t know exactly how it could be achieved, but it has, and incredibly well.
And there would be many more things to say about it: about women and their representation, about the figure of the mother, about delusions, about folk myths and legends trough the ages (that are reported in the book), about language and self, but I don’t want to uncover too much of it, and it is most certainly better to discover it in the book itself.
So read it, if you don’t mind utterly gruesome stories, like the original version of fairy tales, for example. Be prepared for horror. But be prepared for an amazing book about it, mostly.

2 thoughts on “Experiments in Language and the beauty of utter darkness – The dumb house, by John Burnside, book review

  1. Blimey, this does sound like a powerful read! I’m not sure i’m ready for it just yet as I’m nearly finished Han Kang’s ‘The Vegetarian’ which has used up this season’s quota of horrific disturbance in a single sitting. I’ll stick it on the wish list for when I’m ready for a fresh bout of trauma!

    Liked by 1 person

    • O, I’ve heard so many good (that is, disturbingly good) about the Vegetarian, I definitely want to pick it up! But I’m now indeed reading a David Lodge as a comfortable “come back to normal life, it’s fun” therapy 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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