The Dumb House by John Burnside

Random House Vintage

1998 London, paperback 5.99

ISBN 0 09 958271 6

Madness is manifest in many forms. The true horror in this debut novel lies not in the main character's actions -- despicable, diabolical and in many cases viscerally unpleasant though they are -- but in his oh-so-reasonable logic, as he explains his motives along the way.

The first-person narrator is plainly mentally disturbed -- a result, most likely, of his unconventional upbringing. But he portrays himself as a model of calm, clear-headed sanity.

He tells his story -- or rather, the story of one episode in what will surely be a series of horrendous, callous experiments -- in interwoven flashbacks. The very first sentence tells us that he's killed, and the rest of the novel expounds the circumstances, announcing each significant scene's climax in advance, in a kind of flashback-leapfrog, but without diminishing the tension; it's not the plot that's of most interest, but the protagonist's state of mind.

So much of this novel is a delight. The closely observed details, the intricate lucidity of the writing, the temporal juggling -- all these help to win the reader to the narrator's side. He is a sympathetic character, for all his awful actions; every sentence proclaims his justification. A careful experimenter with a laudable goal, he seeks to test a hypothesis: that children reared in the absence of the spoken word will invent a language of their own.

"In Persian Myth, it is said that Akbar the Great once built a palace which he filled with new-born children, attended only by mutes, in order to learn whether language is innate or acquired. This palace became known as the Gang Mahal, or Dumb House."

The myth, quoted on the frontispiece, and related to him repeatedly in childhood, is the seed of the protagonist's obsession. It's an obsession nurtured during his insular upbringing. Throughout the novel he never seems to meet normal people; all those he interacts with, starting with his parents, are in some way peculiar. The detached, unfeeling experiment he performs on the unfortunate twins in some way compensates for his own emotional deprivation.

The Dumb House is chilling psychological horror, set in urban present-day, viewed from a cool and twisted perspective. Recommended.

Copyright 1998 Paul S. Jenkins

Note: This review originally appeared in the Usenet Newsgroup, and has been archived at:

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