The Dumb House • Book Review

I knew, pretty much instantly, that I was going to find much to like in John Burnside’s The Dumb House, from that rather striking opening scene of the experiment gone wrong, the twins being killed by the protagonist, Luke. From the things I’d heard of this book I had thought it was going to focus on the experiment, but while it is important it’s not so much the focus of the plot as the catalyst for the other events of this book.

I haven’t read Lolita but I imagine people who have will see some similarities in The Dumb House, particularly to do with seeing the reasoning behind sexual assault and domination over women from the assailant himself, through his eyes – what is most interesting with this perspective is I think the normalizing, the logic, the rationale behind said actions, and aftermath. In The Dumb House, Luke meets a woman called Karen with a child who is mute; he meets her because of her child, as he is looking into some things to do with his plans for the experiment – I’ll get back to that later. His relationship with Karen is clearly dysfunctional; he uses her in more ways than one and oversteps any moral rules or bounds – both in terms of his relationship with her child, but also with Karen herself. He has sex with her while she seems to be either unconscious or drunk, after which follows his excusing his own behavior as acting on mutual wants and needs, acting on her invitation, and so forth. While the actions of Luke are often condemnable and could easily have been the fall for this novel, it’s dealt with purposefully and the fact that Luke is justifying himself within the text is also a sign that he sees a problem with his actions, if not from his own point of view then from society’s at large. I’m not sure I’m making myself clear but what I found interesting about Luke’s action in relationship especially to the women around him, while I found the actions and his reasoning to be clearly wrong, I thought the way Burnside explored this process of neutralizing and normalizing to be interesting.

The experiment I’ve mentioned above, that Luke is trying to do, has as its main aim to find the soul. Basically he wants to know where in the body the soul is, to find some sort of evidence for it in the design of the human body, and this search leads him to focus on language learning. Specifically he wants to isolate a child from birth, with no access to any form of language, and see if that child develops a language without having an environment that would be responsible for it – basically if the ability for language is a skill we learn or if we’re born with it. The twins – a boy and a girl – that are introduced in the first chapter of the book returns in the last part of the book. The book is actually divided into three parts; the first focuses on Karen, the next on Lillian, and the last on the twins. So while the twin experiment is an important part of the entire book – his meetings with the other two women and all of his actions are part of his process to getting to the making of the experiment – the actual realization of the experiment is only one third of the book.

I thought there was a lot to like in this book. While the point of view of Luke and seeing his rationale for all of his actions was interesting, my main enjoyment came more from an intellectual side of things. By that I mean I found the many ideas to do with research, language, discourse, the soul, the body, humanness; all of these concepts and ideas to be both endlessly fascinating and thought provoking. It might be that many of my interests fall right into the themes Burnside explores in this novel – for example discourse and language is clearly at the heart of it, he talks for instance about what sort of role language plays in humans lives and I found both the discussion and the effects it had on the protagonist, to be really interesting. While a lot of the things Luke does is more ‘obviously’ wrong, there’s a lot of moral ambiguity for other things and I found that so much fun as a reader to explore. For example, he talks of the ethics related to research and science in general – what should and could be allowed, what kind of role a scientist has, etc. Or he speaks of the desire to understand the human body – and the only way to really see it in full is to open it up while the body is still alive. I think I really liked the ambiguity because it allowed me to think of things in new ways and not be limited to norms and ‘correctness’ – to go beyond the ways of thinking that is generally accepted so to speak, and be put in different perspectives.

All this said, I sometimes found the book as a whole to be a little lacking in direction, as if the three parts weren’t quite sewn together so that the cracks were visible. At points I found the story to be wandering off from the main points – like the whole Jimmy trouble, it didn’t seem to serve much of a point other than the ‘end’ of the problem so to speak. There were also quite a bit of repetitiveness in the writing towards the end, the same words and phrases being used with only a few pages in between – almost like Burnside had forgot he wrote them already. For example towards the end Luke says something about him being afraid of the twins, they seemed malevolent and then only a page or two later, he again says the twins were malevolent – as if it was new information. It just seemed a bit sloppy to me. I could understand if the repetitiveness was intentional – to show Luke’s ‘going mad’ as he himself explains he started to feel like he was going mad, started to hallucinate, etc. – but while it’s clear his actions and the Luke of the time of the events are starting to lose control of his ‘mind’, the Luke who is narrating is further on in time, he’s no longer in the same mind-space and should then not be this disordered in the writing for that reason. It doesn’t quite seem to fit. So anyway, I thought it was a shame that some of the writing wasn’t spot-on especially in the last section of the book.

I feel like what I got most out of this was the questions it raises, and the way Luke is navigating these themes, and part of the writing was quite beautiful and well-crafted, but it wasn’t perfect. I’m definitely going to be reading more Burnside though and I have a strong inkling I’ll be returning to The Dumb House in the future.

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