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The Dumb House: A Chamber Novel

Burnside, John

1,285 ratings by Goodreads
ISBN 10: 0224042076 / ISBN 13: 9780224042079
Published by London Jonathan Cape 1997, 1997
Used Condition: fine
From Aquila Books(Cameron Treleaven) ABAC (Calgary, AB, Canada)

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Uncorrected Proof Copy. 198pp. Octavo with cream wrappers and black lettering on front and spine. fine A scarce uncorrected proof copy. Burnside's first novel, a chilling story of a man's language experiments on his children. Bookseller Inventory # 134715

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Bibliographic Details

Title: The Dumb House: A Chamber Novel

Publisher: London Jonathan Cape 1997

Publication Date: 1997

Book Condition:fine

About this title


In Persian myth, it is said that Akbar the Great once built a palace which he filled with newborn children, attended only by mutes, in order to learn whether language is innate or acquired. As the years passed, and the children grew into their silent and difficult world, this palace became known as the Gang Mahal, or Dumb House. In his first novel, John Burnside explores the possibilities inherent in a modern-day repetition of Akbar's investigations. Following the death of his mother, the unnamed narrator creates a twisted variant of the Dumb House, finally using his own children as subjects in a bizzare experiment. When the children develop a musical language of their own, however, their gaoler is the one who is excluded, and he extracts an appalling revenge. An enquiry into the acquisition of language, a dark voyage of exploration into a deeply disturbed mind, or a metaphysical discourse on the nature of the soul, the novel raises many questions, in a bleak, lyrical and haunting narrative of madness and human cruelty.


Reader beware: The Dumb House is not for the faint of heart. This debut novel by Scottish poet John Burnside is subtitled A Chamber Novel, but "Chamber of Horror" might better describe it. The central character and narrator is Luke, a terrifyingly lucid madman with a hankering to "know the soul." His deceased mother told him once that the soul resided in language, and he's been obsessed ever since with discovering if this is true. To that end, Luke takes a page from an old fable about a king who kept babies sequestered in silent isolation in order to discover whether language is a natural or an acquired skill. For his own experiment, Luke impregnates a young stranger, takes the twins she gives birth to and locks them up in a basement where he raises them in complete silence. Eventually, however, the children begin to annoy him, and Luke feels he must "cut them down." How he does this isn't pretty.

From dissecting live animals as a boy to his latest outrage perpetrated on his own infant children, Luke is completely unconcerned with the sufferings of others, so intent is he on his "scientific" inquiries after the human soul. The fact that he is obviously lacking in this department is one of the book's ironies. The gruesome details are plentiful enough in Burnside's novel, but it is what goes on in the mind of this depraved character even more than what happens under his scalpel that terrifies; The Dumb House is likely to be one of those books that sticks in your memory long after it's done, whether you want it to or not.

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