Sunday, 21 February 2016

Review: The Dumb House by John Burnside

Title: The dumb house 
Author: John Burnside
Year: 1997
Publisher: Vintage
Pages: 204
Life and death, and the thin line between the two, has always interested Luke. As a child, he enjoyed dissecting animals, but now, as an adult, things have gotten out of hand. He could blame his mother for all of this: after all, she’s the person who told him about the Dumb House, about the experiment that was to test the innateness of language. If you were to raise children without ever speaking to them, would they still develop language? Even though the experiment had been conducted in the past, Luke finds there’s little evidence backing it up, and as his obsession with the tale grows, he feels he should contribute to the research. 

There are many reasons why this novel grabbed my attention, but to be honest, the reason I even heard of it was because of author and bookvlogger Jen Campbell, and the hype resulting from her mentioning the book. She spoke of it so passionately that halve of the booktube community started reading it, and ever since it was on my to-buy list. I had kind of forgotten about it when I was reviewing my list (I do this every once in a while, checking which books I should cross out) and when I saw this title, I looked it up. This is when I really became interested in reading it. It seemed every critic loved the novel, Burnside’s prose alongside the ingenious plot. Besides that, I also followed quite a few linguistic courses during my Bachelor’s and since, I’ve been interested in language development. This novel seemed like the perfect, albeit morbid, opportunity to combine this with my love for literature. So I bought it, and not long after, I read it. 

It’s easy to be dissappointed when you’re beyond excited, knowing for sure you’ll love a novel. I was prepared to be dissappointed. But it turned out there was no need to be. This novel is all critics promised it to be. Not only is Burnside a brilliant writer, using language in such a clever and beautiful way to describe a clearly disturbed character and his thoughts, he also manages to make the reader feel almost criminal: you clearly don’t approve of what is happening, yet you’re interested in knowing the outcome. 

But let’s back up to the depiction of our protagonist: Luke. It doesn’t take more than halve a sentence to know you’re dealing with an insane character. You don’t have to figure out he’s a psycho, and he clearly has some unresolved mommy-issues. But as you get deeper into the story, as you get to know him better, you actually learn you don’t know so much about him. The story is written from his perspective, meaning every aspect is biassed. This reminded my much of Lolita in which you follow a similarly perverse character and are made to think there is true love between a child and a grown man. The only reason you believe this is because the protagonist, through whom’s eyes you you see the story, believes it to be true. Reflecting these thoughts on The Dumb House you could argue that Karen and Lillian, for example, are likely to be very different from what Luke may want the readers to think. Now I don’t want to go into too much detail on this, but I thought this was an interesting concept (oh how I wish I was still a student, I would surely find an opportunity to write an essay on this). 

Another interesting aspect of the novel is its structure. From the very start, you know what Luke has done, yet you don’t know the exact details until the very end. This may not be a very innovative way to tell a story, but in this case it worked particularly well. It sucks you in immediately, and it will never let you go. You want to know more and more, and even though you learn things along the way, they’ll only leave you with more questions. 

I don’t want to talk too much about the actual plot, because I don’t want to spoil too much, but just know that the Burnside did his research, is insanely creative, and probably a bit mad. He did what not many other authors do – he found the perfect balance between good writing and a solid story: never having the one get in the way from the other.

All in all, this is a must read. Although it’s literary fiction, someone who might normally only read horror will also like it, and because of the way it intertwines language, psychology and philosophy, it’ll also be highly interesting for those who only read non-fiction. 

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