What’s it all about?:
Powerful, darkly funny and heart-breaking, Shtum is a story about fathers and sons, autism, and dysfunctional relationships.
Ben Jewell has hit breaking point. His ten-year-old son Jonah has severe autism and Ben and his wife, Emma, are struggling to cope.
When Ben and Emma fake a separation – a strategic decision to further Jonah’s case in an upcoming tribunal – Ben and Jonah move in with Georg, Ben’s elderly father. In a small house in North London, three generations of men – one who can’t talk; two who won’t – are thrown together.
What did I think?:
There were a few things that first attracted me to Shtum by Jem Lester. Initially, I couldn’t fail but to be pulled in by that gorgeous cover and the way it was published as a naked hardback (one of my favourite types of hardbacks) then I read the synopsis and the early reviews and I got The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time vibe from it which intrigued me and made me more keen to check out what it was all about. Now I ordinarily hate comparing books to each other but did Shtum live up to the dizzying heights of Curious Incident? Unfortunately, not quite but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book by any stretch of the imagination. I think when you go into something expecting a direct copy, it’s never going to end well and Shtum deserves to stand on its own as the story of a very different and fascinating family that I did end up feeling a range of conflicting emotions for.
Jem Lester, author of Shtum.
In a nutshell, this is the story of Ben Jewell who has recently separated from his wife, taking custody of his severely autistic son Jonah and living with his father, Jonah’s grandfather Georg. The interesting thing about Ben and Emma’s struggles is that their separation is staged, purely so that they have a better chance of getting Jonah into the residential school of their dreams that will offer them a much higher level of support than they have previously been receiving. Both parents are at breaking point, with Jonah and with each other and Ben has turned to drinking heavily as a way of escaping rather than helping to run the family business. He is also dealing with a difficult relationship with his father, Georg and as the fight to get Jonah the best care rumbles on, everything comes to a head for all parties concerned and they must learn to pull together as a family if they are all going to get through this hardest of times unscathed.
An indication of the main problems that a child with autism spectrum disorder can present with.
Now, I’m in no way, shape or form an autism expert but I had no idea how devastating an effect severe autism can have on a family. Compared with Curious Incident, where our protagonist is on the milder end of the spectrum, Shtum gives a no holds barred account of the “other” end where lack of speech, continence and occasional aggression seem to be the norm. I cannot imagine how debilitating it must be for the child and for the family as a whole and it was certainly an eye opener into a different, very cruel world. On further reading, I’ve discovered Jem Lester happens to have a severely autistic child so presumably has drawn on a lot of his own personal experiences to tell Ben and Jonah’s story and this makes the narrative all the more poignant, increasing my admiration and respect for the author ten-fold.
As for the conflicting emotions I mentioned earlier, that was mainly directed towards the behaviour of certain characters in the novel whom I found endlessly frustrating at points. Yes, we understand why Ben drinks and also why he shirks work. In the horrendous situation that he finds himself where his child requires constant, specialist care, you can’t blame him for becoming depressed and losing himself in something that will make him forget his troubles and responsibilities for a while. But this was also the reason why I just wanted to shake him. Him and Emma, for burying their heads in the sands and ignoring the issues or not asking for the appropriate help that they obviously deserve. Ben’s love for Jonah completely shines through and this is lovely to see, despite his misgivings and considerably “human” reactions to an awful situation BUT there were so many opportunities that he had the chance to turn his life round, build his fractured relationship with his father, sort his drinking out and each time, he just failed miserably.
Of course, it is always difficult to get that happy ending and it was authentic in the way that Ben took his sweet time to address his troubles but personally, I just found myself getting annoyed with him too quickly for his occasionally ridiculous actions. However, if you can get past this, this is a heart-breaking read that is well worth the time and investment purely for the different slice of life that this kind of challenge brings to thousands of families all over the world every day. I appreciated the sentiment, the volatile relationships and the humble way in which the author approaches a difficult and emotional subject area.
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):