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A House and Its Head

3.41  ·  Rating details ·  271 Ratings  ·  48 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, 276 pages
Published August 25th 1983 by Penguin Books (first published 1935)
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Jan 27, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 04, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, feminism
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
At The Fidelity Fiduciary Bank.
A case is ready to be made that Mary Poppins is the fists-clenched existential tale of one man's struggle to the bottom: one George Banks, formerly of the Bank Of London. Uptight father of a motherless family in staunchly proper Edwardian society, Banks is the only one in the story with a character arc. After all, everybody else just does what they do: Poppins flies around on her umbrella bringing delight, the children love games, hate school, hate medicine, love s
Aug 06, 2009 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Nicholas During
Feb 28, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jul 09, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 11, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: britlit, nyrb
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
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
Elena Sobrino
Well, yes, lots of lines were clever and funny but not enough to really make this enjoyable. And the supposedly reckless sins that everyone commits really...aren't that bad. Also, no character seems capable of experiencing fluctuations in emotion, which makes it difficult (though not impossible) to feel anything but an artificial and remote interest in the story. I do like the thematic material, and admire the clip of the conversations (the novel is exclusively structured in dialogue, reading li ...more
Mar 25, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Lorraine Wallace
Shelves: own, nyrb, fiction

Three stars because there's so much going on here, on the surface and underneath it, but nonetheless I strongly disliked the book. I've read two of her novels because I already owned them, but I can't imagine reading any more. Torture, pretty much.
Mar 31, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is Downton Abbey for the vicious. The story passes so much in dialogue that it can be hard to be sure of where the characters are or even who speaks, but on balance the information is there to reward the patient reader. Once it's easy to keep track of who is who, it's a funny, biting novel.
Bill FromPA
Feb 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nyrb-classics, 1930s
There is a book burning in the first chapter of A House and Its Head. Only a single volume, “a scientific work, inimical the faith of the day” is incinerated, and the destruction takes place at the family hearth, not in a public square, but the action, placed by the author in 1885, resonates with international events in the year of publication, 1935. Later in the book there is an even more horrifying and brutal event that anticipates actions taken in Nazi Germany by several years. If the first i ...more
Oct 14, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
- jeśli kochacie Gosford Park (a przede wszystkim Starą z Gosford Park)
- jeśli uwielbiacie Bernharda i jego rozwalanie złudzeń
- jeśli kochacie komunikację i lawiny spiętrzonych znaczeń w każdym zdaniu, które zabijają tych mniej uważnych (a w tym XIX wiktoriański wiek wszakże się specjalizował)
- i czasem uważacie, że przymiotniki są przereklamowane (niesamowite wstrzymujące dech w piersiach magiczne porywające wzruszające widoki to nie tutaj)
- a na co dzień brakuje Wam inteligentnej ir
Justin Evans
Aug 02, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
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.
Oct 02, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Was confused at first but finished it more than a bit in love with ICB's mind.
Ilse Wouters
Nov 06, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: in-english
When considering the reviews and comments I read before actually reading the book, I feel like the odd one out, as I can interprete the story in many ways, but "hilarious"? No, thats definitely not an accurate word to use, according to me. What is covered here : the life of a well-off family in victorian times, and the way their "secrets" and events (death, adultery, even murder) are dealt with within both their intimate family circle and their extended local "friends" circle. What makes the sto ...more
Scott Cox
Published in 1935, “A House and its Head” was British author Ivy Compton-Burnett’s fifth of nineteen novels. The story has an almost play-like quality, with many conversational snippets taking place around the breakfast table or adjoining parlor. Writer Francine Prose quips that Compton-Burnett’s domestic squabbles and machinations suggest a domestic order akin to “Jane Austin on bad drugs.” That’s an apt analogy. The Edgeworth family is awash in baleful maneuvers to ensure financial and positio ...more
Mar 21, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
3 stars for enjoyment, it's so grim. There's murder, incest and all sorts under the veneer of upper middle class family life.

5 stars for originality. This book is completely different to any book I've read. Full of dialogue that no normal people would speak, but which conveys several different thoughts simultaneously. Often difficult to decipher who's talking at first read, so have to re-read paragraphs.

And what's the response of the characters to all this hideousness around them ? Nothing: sta
Mar 23, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: general-fiction
Powieści Ivy Compton-Burnett skupiają się przede wszystkim na życiu domowym i związanym z nim problemami. Burnett opisuje jak działa hierarchia w rodzinie. Pokazuję walkę o dominację i czym te zmagania mogą skutkować. Nie popada przy tym w sentymentalizm, nie potęguje uczyć nadziei, czy rozpaczy. Stara się pokazać życie takim jakie jest. Powieść „Dom i jego głowa” nie jest pod tym względem wyjątkiem.

Bohaterowie powieści muszą radzić sobie z przemocą psychiczną, zagrożeniem z zewnątrz, czy wrogim
May 19, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Rita	 Marie
May 27, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-fiction
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
Deborah J
I struggled more with this than with previous Compton-Burnetts although this is supposed to be one of her best. It needs to be read at long sittings - it's very hard to dip in and out of because you lose track of who's speaking.

I wouldn't advise anyone thinking of starting a family or about to attend a family reunion to read this book! The seemingly inane chit-chat of family life is revealed as vicious, self-serving, self-aggrandising and controlling. Meal times are especially dangerous in C-B's
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
Oct 03, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 06, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Mar 29, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
May 22, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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NYRB Classics: A House and Its Head, by Ivy Compton-Burnett 7 22 Mar 23, 2015 09:23PM  
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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

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