THE DUMB HOUSE by John Burnside


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 An adenoidally creepy, affecting debut about one man's mad hunt for the origins of language and the soul. Scottish poet Burnside's bravura performance has everything to do with preeminence of tone. He's a master of the art of establishing persuasive personal atmospherics, based here on the voice of Luke, the precociously anomic and amoral first-person narrator. Effectively orphaned from society on a secluded rural estate in Britain, Luke has been headily influenced by his remote, beautiful mother and left indifferent to his anonymous father, not encouraged by either, while they were living, to consider himself as real kin of anybody. Estranged and yet entitled, he never doubts that he lives at the center of a world. Perhaps as a result, the nature of communication obsesses him. He's fascinated, for instance, by the legend of the Moghul King Akbar's ``Dumb House,'' where chosen children of the empire were sequestered from infancy on, cared for by mute adults and observed to determine whether speech was an inborn or acquired skill. (The conclusion: Acquired.) Appalled by the behavior of the humanity lurking on his own distant periphery and yet seduced by the idea that we may possess a redemptive spirit nonetheless, Luke wants ``to know the soul,'' and so sets out to reproduce Akbar's experiment on a more modest scale at home. The novel successfully raises Luke from the realm of morbid thrill-seeking to the more poignant role of artist gone wrong. Playing god in a series of cruel physical and metaphysical exploits, he recruits humans into his lair but is never himself humanized. The flaw is that all the people here rarely seem wholly real; they live (and perish) in a vaporous, unhappy epic of inflamed and narrowing sky. Still, Burnside's poetry urges us with remarkably few misgivings into his story, which seizes hold of readers like a virus.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-224-04207-6
Page count: 198pp
Publisher: Jonathan Cape/Trafalgar
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 1997


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