The Dumb House by John Burnside


The Dumb House was a book I had had on my TBR since January which I finally got round to reading at the weekend on my train journey to Scotland. Originally published in 1997, it was reissued by Vintage in 2015 as part of a collection of Scottish classics. On its reissue it caused quite a stir on social media with bloggers and booktubers discovering and loving this book and it even prompted its own hashtag on Twitter – #Burnsided. With this in mind I was excited to read it, and eager to discover the disturbing world hiding within its pages…

‘Each of these events was an inevitability, one thread in the fabric of what might be called destiny, for want of a better word – a thread that neither I nor anyone else could have removed without corrupting the whole design.’

From the very first page I was surprised and intrigued by this story with its chilling opening line – ‘No one could say it was my choice to kill the twins’ and this proved to be the beginning of our glimpse into the mind of Luke, and the often disturbing and troubling things that occupy his thoughts. As a child, his mother told him stories of ‘The Dumb House’ and the experiments carried out on newborn babies within its walls. This is something that stayed in Luke’s mind, leaving him with the urge to carry out some experiments of his own. As he grows up these interests intensify and he begins carrying out amateur dissections on the small animals he sets out to catch. He is obsessed  with life and death, obsessed with his desire to see inside a living creature, only to watch as life trickles slowly away. The subject matter is certainly disturbing and as you can imagine, some of the imagery is particularly gruesome and chilling. Despite this, I was gripped, and keen to keep on reading, to find out more about this unnerving protagonist.

‘For a long time I lay there, listening, waiting for the story to resume, or to reach some natural end.’

As the story progresses, Luke’s desire to experiment, along with his continued interest in language and how humans develop it lead him to move on from the animal dissections he is used to. The novel takes its most chilling turn when we learn of what his intentions are towards his twins. This is such an unsettling book, but I found myself fascinated by it. Luke was an interesting, horrifying character and something of an unreliable narrator. Some of his thoughts and the acts he commits throughout are horrific and terrifying, but there is a strange calm to Luke’s voice, and he has such a methodical, analytical mind. It was fascinating to see how his mind worked, his emotions, and his morality. He was also a controlling man, and this can be seen in the relationships he has with the women in this story. His behaviour towards these women for whom he cared was also unnerving and at times, shocking. Whilst he cares for them, he has his uses for them, moulding them into what he requires as part of his sinister plans.

‘It doesn’t matter who I am, or what I have done. I am nothing other than a mind in space, noticing each detail then moving on, noticing then forgetting, looking then moving on.’

I really enjoyed The Dumb House, which I was surprised at considering its unsettling, bleak content. I wouldn’t say this is a book for everyone but if you were looking for a story that is a little dark and twisted then this may be one for you. It is a bizarre, yet beautifully written novel. It is a morbidly fascinating glimpse into a disturbed mind, and a compelling look at language, morality and humanity.

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