The Dumb House – John Burnside

I remember when this book was making the rounds on BookTube several years ago; it’s been on my to-read list ever since. Being proficient at procrastination means that it took me until 2021 to actually read it, but we got here in the end and I’m delighted to report that it was worth the wait.

When Luke is a child his mother tells him the myth of Akbar the Great who, hypothesising that children learn speech through hearing, raises children in an isolated mansion attended to only by mutes. The children never learn to speak in Akbar’s experiment, but the story captivates Luke. Over time he researches other experiments about the origins of language, but it is Akbar’s “dumb house” that he cannot get out of his mind. The logical conclusion to this, of course, is that he must re-enact this experiment for his own investigations into language and how it interacts with the human soul.

Luke is an alarmingly calm narrator, which adds to the creeping unease that seeps from the pages. In a style reminiscent of Humbert Humbert in Lolita, he performs horrifying acts which he recounts with a cool, collected composure. Every move is justified and he has a complete inability to recognise himself as committing acts that he would otherwise see as wrong. It made my skin crawl.

The book is cyclical in its form and so we know that the tale ends with him killing the children in his experiment. Knowing that you are heading for a tragic conclusion makes the journey that gets you there all the more disturbing. There is no hope of escape from the sinister plot that Luke is enacting. Some scenes towards the end of the novel also add a sense of retroactive horror, as you more fully understand events that took place at the beginning of the book.

The Dumb House lived up to my high expectations and I had the best time with it. The beautiful prose was a stark contrast to the story and made the reading experience all the more enjoyable. It’s been a while since I’ve had this type of fun with a book. That might sound odd, considering the book is clearly not a happy read, but I get so much joy out of reading about sick and twisted characters. It gave me that same giddy feeling I get when watching a good horror film. Gloriously unsettling.