Review: The Dumb House by John Burnside



As a child, Luke’s mother often tells him the story of the Dumb House, an experiment on newborn babies raised in silence, designed to test the innateness of language. As Luke grows up, his interest in language and the delicate balance of life and death leads to amateur dissections of small animals – tiny hearts revealed still pumping, as life trickles away. But as an adult, following the death of his mother, Luke’s obsession deepens, resulting in a haunting and bizarre experiment on Luke’s own children.


This book was nothing like what I thought it would, and for that reason, it disappointed me.

I believed this novel was going to be a creepy, man-holds-children-captive kind of story, but unfortunately it wasn’t. This was far more intelligent, with lots of complex writing than I had expected, and due to that, I couldn’t really get into it. I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed so I feel like a lot of this book went over my head.

There’s no doubt about it, our narrator is one of the most terrifying and disturbed narrators I’ve ever come across, and thanks to my love for the macabre, this made reading his story sometimes enjoyable. When he was simply recalling his actions in the here and now, I was interested, but when he got into his ramblings about his ideas on testing the innateness of language, my mind moved onto different things. Hence it taking me almost a week and a half to read 204 pages.

Burnside is an incredibly beautiful writer, it doesn’t surprise me to see he’s a poetry writer as well as a fiction writer. I’m always one to praise an author for their poetic prose, but sometimes things get a little too complex for me and all meaning is lost on me. This happened a lot throughout reading The Dumb House.

In terms of the story, this wasn’t exactly what I had hoped it would be. It was very slow to get anywhere, and even when we did get to learning his experiment on his children, that whole section was equally slow-moving. It didn’t feel like an awful lot happened other than several uncomfortable sex scenes and some horrifying violence.

Unfortunately, this one didn’t do it for me, which is a shame, because I was so looking forward to reading it. I suppose if you love intelligent fiction that is reasonably ambiguous, this might be great for you. I personally like a book that challenges my mind, but this one went too far for me.

*Buy it here: Amazon UK | Book Depository | Wordery

*affiliate links

13 Replies to “Review: The Dumb House by John Burnside”

    1. I wouldn’t say this one is preachy. The narrator is fascinated with language and the whole point of the novel is about him trying to recreate an experiment he’s been obsessed with since he was a child, all about seeing whether language is innate or learned. However, that part of the story doesn’t come until right at the end, for the most part, the novel is about him trying to find the perfect subject to do the experiment on – it’s very slow! But, I wouldn’t recommend it anyway, it’s… weird!


  1. Ah it sucks that you did not enjoy this one more. I’ve always wanted to read this, but I was hesitant for exactly the reasons you listed here. I was afraid it would be too slow and too dense, and that seems to be the case. Great review as always!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve heard loads of great things about John Burnside but never get the chance to read his books. Have you read his other less-known book, something to do with mists? I think I will enjoy his creepy, interesting stories but never got the push to buy them and actually read them :”)

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: