I was reading some poetry by John Burnside some months ago so when I came across 'The Dumb House' on a recent charity shop trawl I bought it. I read it, but I did not like it. I think that the subject matter negated any consideration of style and the central character was so disgusting that I could only read on in fascinated horror.
Narrated by Luke the story follows his secluded childhood and how he becomes fascinated by language and a story of children raised without speech by Akbar the Mughal. He has a peculiar close relationship with his mother, the only person who seems to understand him, and the only other person he appears to acknowledge as a human being. He treats everyone else he encounters as irrelevant, and only of interest if they serve his purpose. After his mother's death he begins researching into the nature of language, educating himself widely but indiscriminately. He meets a woman with a son who does not speak, but becomes more drawn to her than to the child. By chance he encounters another young woman who is dumb and 'rescues' her from the influence of a local vagrant. When he realises she is pregnant he goes about making preparations for his own experiment. It does not progress as he anticipates and in the end he accepts the failure and decides he will have to start again. It reminded me a little of 'The Collector' by John Fowles, who's protagonist similarly imprisons someone for his own devices and plots to begin again when his 'experiment' fails.
He is a totally reliable narrator, because he has nothing to hide. He relates his thoughts and actions as if they are utterly sane and logical. He sees most people as shallow and their lives meaningless, and himself as pursuing a higher path. Although he says he becomes 'fond' of Lillian it is more as if she is a pet than as a person. He is marked as a megalomaniac for me because he does not find anything interesting in the twins' amazing abilities, but is only frustrated by them because it was not what he wanted to happen, and then he becomes afraid of them because he perceives them as mocking him. He is weirdly dissociated from his own behaviour and lacks any kind of moral framework, though he obviously knows social codes and can behave like a normal person when the situation requires.
Here he is confronted and attacked by the dumb boy:
" 'You're quite clever, really,' I said. 'You're not as stupid as you pretend.'
He watched me. I think I saw a flicker of contempt then, as if he had guessed what I was going to do before I even knew myself. If he had, he still wasn't afraid: he kept his eyes fixed on my face as I took his thumb in my left hand and, with an effort I found quite exhilarating, twisted it back and felt it snap. His face showed the pain, but he made no sound. He didn't cry out, he didn't even struggle, he only whimpered a little, towards the end, as I broke each finger in turn, gripping his arm tightly and holding him up as he began to slump, his face white as death, his eyes glazed, his legs giving way beneath him, as if he were suffering from vertigo. When I had finished I let him fall, and he lay still in the puddles of orange juice and egg yolk. I believe he must have fainted. I stood over him, listening: there was no sound from upstairs, no sound except his breathing. For a moment I was dizzy with the sheer immediacy of it all - the sweet-sickly smell, the boy's golden hair, his broken fingers, the thought of the woman upstairs, still sleeping, warm and damp and vulnerable. The thought passed through my head that I might go back up and finish what I had begun, but I pulled myself together and left, slipping out the back way as always, moving invisibly through the garden and out into the gathering darkness." (p.60-61)
A very intense little book, quite emotionally draining; a portrait of humanity at its worst.