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A House and Its Head
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A House and Its Head

3.47 of 5 stars 3.47  ·  rating details  ·  169 ratings  ·  34 reviews
A radical thinker, one of the rare modern heretics, said Mary McCarthy of Ivy Compton-Burnett, in whose austere, savage, and bitingly funny novels anything can happen and no one will ever escape. The long, endlessly surprising conversational duels at the center of Compton-Burnett's works are confrontations between the unspoken and the unspeakable, and in them the dynamics ...more
Paperback, 280 pages
Published August 25th 1983 by Penguin Books (first published 1935)
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Simon
A very strange book. I hardly know what to think. It invites comparison with Meredith with respect to the sheer difficulty of following what's happening. People say things (practically the whole book is dialogue) but half the time, I just don't follow the conversation. This tendency is not helped by (perhaps is wholly owing to) the absence of clues as to when things are said sotto voce, or in a side conversation not involving all present, and so on. (I suppose there must be theatrical adaptation ...more
bobbygw
Compton-Burnett (abbreviated as CB henceforth) is one of the truly remarkable modernist writers, with a span of resonant fiction that she wrote from the 1920s through to the 1960s. Through her principal and powerful focus on the use of dialogue in her fiction to convey in a dramatic way her characters' individual personalities, tensions, complexities, resentments, repressions and sometimes savage irony - she herself is a savage, i.e., wonderful Swiftian ironist/satirist, scalpel-sharp - she is r ...more
Callie
Ever been in a room with two people who know each other really well and almost have a second language between them that you feel you are missing out on? They have lots of inside jokes, etc. That's how I felt reading this book. Maybe C-B is just too sly for me? Or maybe she lacks the simply ability to write clearly? I prefer to think it's the latter of the two for obvious reasons. I don't lack intelligence; she lacks talent.

But, I DID like this book and there were so many twists in the plot that
...more
Terence
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Bob
A novel constructed almost entirely from brittle, spiteful dialog between awful upper-middle class Victorian English family members - sort of funny and sort of too close to the bone for comfort in some ways. If indeed "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way", I suppose we ought to try to take in a cross-section of the many varieties.

Finished this and have to say (as the improbably named Francine Prose notes in her afterword) it is "hilarious" and "harrowing" - lots of rather melodramatic
...more
Nicholas During
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Eileen
A 1935 British Victorian family drama/black comedy with some melodramatic elements. You'd think that any mention of melodrama would send me running for the hills, but in this case, no. The comedy here, already dark and serious, uses that melodrama as a way to become even darker and more serious. In the end, the book becomes not just a critique but a condemnation of the entirety of Victorian family life, and in particular the dominant, horrifying man of the house.

I picked this up since it was par
...more
Rita	 Marie
This book provided a unique reading experience, turned my head right around. It’s about 98% straight dialog, much like reading a play but without any stage directions. Often you don’t know where the scene is or who is present until someone speaks up. Unlike a stage play, however, the dialog is vague and uncertain with a sort of herky-jerky quality. Did he really mean that? Was that sarcasm? Wait, what did she say?

The core characters are the Edgeworth family – father Duncan, wife Ellen, daughter
...more
Justin Evans
I had a lot of trouble working out the tone of this book. At the end of the day I think it's more satirical than I thought when I started reading it. In any case, it's pretty funny. Not sure if I'll be picking up anymore of her books; word on the grapevine is they're mostly the same.
Linda
Was confused at first but finished it more than a bit in love with ICB's mind.
Syd
This book is a difficult read. The vast majority of the book is dialogue, and the non-dialogue prose is brief and businesslike, telling only what is necessary to move the dialogue along. Skimming is almost impossible here. I had to reread pages many times to catch the few words that clarify what's going on. However, if a reader pays close enough attention, the dialogue is all that one needs to get a complex look into the inner workings of a strictly led household fighting over matters of inherit ...more
Tessa
This novel was so English that it was at times incomprehensible. (For example, she will blithely use "it" three or four times in a sentence, each "it" with a different antecedent.) But Anglophile that I am, I soldiered on, and was rewarded by a truly shocking plot. These characters, Edwardian and mostly gentlefolk, have no compunctions about adultery and murder, and everyone agrees to cover it all up because we don't want any trouble, now do we? It's all told in well-bred tea-table dialogue, whi ...more
Amari
I was stunned and delighted for the first 80 pages or so. Compton-Burnett's prose is concise, wickedly pointed, and aggressively sardonic. The book consists almost entirely of active dialogue, allowing the reader to draw conclusions without guidance from an omniscient presence through the characters' interactions. After a while, this characteristic -- however attractive it may have been initially -- became tiresome for me. The unremitting dialogues started to sag and lose their sharpness; both c ...more
Monica Nolan
I discovered this book in a hodge-podgey library room at college (which also had Fred Astaire's autobiography and a bunch of James Bond novels). I loved this. The story and setting are very Victorian, but the tone is totally at odds--modern, mordant, dry. Like Hemingway rewrote Bleak House.
Ruth
Very bizarre and VERY VERY funny if you enter the weirdness of this family with its patriarchal "head" of the house. I read other reviewers on Goodreads first and it helped me have the right attitude to enjoy this book. Otherwise I might have hated it.
John
was not an easy read. must pay very close attention and i often did not. regardless, compton-burnett's vision, style and execution are so unique and thorough and profound and disturbing, one can feel grateful for the challenge. a story told almost entirely in dialogue about a family and what happens to the family in normal and not-so-normal family ways. kind of like reading a play, maybe a screenplay to an episode of "curb your enthusiasm" because everything that is spoken is completely either s ...more
Monique
This novel is a good demonstration for writers on how to use dialogue to create action, something I'm trying to teach my students. Having said that, my only complaint with the way the novel is written is that I frequently had trouble working out who was speaking as I struggled to match Christian names with Surnames. Further, the language is very formal, which is not normally a problem, however on occasion I was left scratching my head trying to work out what point the character was trying to mak ...more
Lisa
These people put the fun in dysfunctional? These people are all so crazy it makes everyone's lives seem so normal. From nephews sleeping with their young aunts (by marriage) to a daughter hiring people to kill her half brother who is technically her step son. And pretty much no one caring. To the busybody neighbours who just want to get married to the rector who seems to be the only eligible bachelor around. Wittily crafted, this book is pretty genius. It is tough to read at times as it's almost ...more
Cecily
Lots of very mannered, self-consciously clever dialogue - almost like reading a Wildean play script. Superb descriptions of people's tone of voice, mannerisms, emotions, motivation, inner fears, hidden agendas etc. Not something one can skim. Although lots of dialogue, it is not always immediately obvious who is saying what. Most characters are cold and detached, with not much plot happening and nothing resolved at the end.

The repercussions of death and betrayal in a family of almost adult offsp
...more
Rosemary
Written late in Ivy Compton-Burnett's life, this book repeats themes from others of hers that I've read (dominant pater familias, stepmother(s), caustic wit) but this goes further into melodrama with the rather horrible (though bloodless) murder of a character who turns out to be superfluous.

Rather too many characters - there were some I didn't bother to even try to keep track of. And of course, ICB's usual dialogue-driven style and devastating emotional truths. But when you read about her own
...more
Anne
I wish this book were not so understated. It's written almost entirely in dialogue, so it can get confusing as to who is talking and what action is taking place during conversations and outside of conversations. The characters are deliciously amoral, but some descriptive text amidst the dialogue would have made this more easily understood. Also, there's a lot of clutter chatter, kind of like a Greek chorus, which serves as commentary on the action, but doesn't help much to explain exactly what i ...more
Kat
This was a challenging book as most of it was conducted in dialogue, and a very dated one at that. You had to pay attention and read between the lines of what was said and what was unsaid. In the end, I think that she was really a soap opera writer before there were soap operas.. But also a very skilled listener and observer of the social scene, register, social conventions, etc. The ploy of presenting dramatic events off-screen and thru outsider comments is effective and ends up drawing you int ...more
Featherbooks
It took me about 40 pages to get into this but I finished it very much impressed by the irony, humor and superb writing. Compton Burnett is described as Cubist, experimental and innovative, all of which is true. She manages to tell an entire story with defined characters simply through dialogue. She's an acquired taste and I am ready to read more of her tales of the mannered upper-class Edwardians as well as Spurling's biography.
Steven
A masterpiece...my friend said Pinter (although preceding) by way of Wilde...don't think she's far off...read if you like Henry Green or George V. higgins or novels beautifully crafted with dialogue and nuance.
Zen Cho
The back cover said this was about late Victorians, but in the book the characters actually talk about the Victorians, which suggests that they aren't.

This book was hardcore! I found it interesting and maybe even impressive, but it doesn't really incline me to read more of her books. It was kind of hardgoing and, more importantly, supah depressing.
Andrew
I liked it but had trouble keeping up with the dialogue. I think I lost a lot of the innuendos and hidden messages. And, I'm not very good with reading period piece writing - my least favorite genre. But, overall good and Compton-Burnett clearly had a distinctive style and voice. Seems like it'd make a good movie a la Jane Austen.
Selene
In her afterward, Francine Prose says it's like Jane Austen in bad drugs, and I can see that. Once you get used to the stilted, oppressive tenor, the endless parade of secondary characters, and the biting dialogue, you come to worship the book because of these things, not in spite of them. A truly weird and revelatory world.
Beth
I probably wouldn't have read this if not for book club. Written in the 20's, it looks back to Jane Austen, but setting is Victorian. Lack of quotation marks and many characters made it confusing, but still, I can see why she is an important author, and has a unique way of telling a story.
Libby
This novel is technically interesting (the narrative unfolds almost entirely in dialogue, and the prose is quite terse and brittle), but otherwise so brutal, so cynical, and so cold that I felt genuinely unhappy while reading it.
Pamster
Jan 30, 2011 Pamster rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Pamster by: John Waters
Awesome. Everyone is just super goddamn mean and cutting. Almost entirely dialogue. Hilar. Picked it up because John Waters wrote about her in Role Models.
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NYRB Classics: A House and Its Head, by Ivy Compton-Burnett 2 6 Oct 23, 2013 04:22PM  
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Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett, DBE was an English novelist, published (in the original hardback editions) as I. Compton-Burnett. She was awarded the 1955 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for her novel Mother and Son.
More about Ivy Compton-Burnett...
Manservant and Maidservant The Present and the Past Parents and Children A Family and a Fortune A God and His Gifts

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“The wrong is never the only thing a wrong-doer has done.” 1 likes
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