Shtum by Jem Lester
Published in 2016 by Orion
My copy: Netgalley ebook
*** With thanks to Netgalley, the publisher and author for a review copy of this book ***
Ben Jewell has hit breaking point. His ten-year-old son, Jonah, has never spoken. So when Ben and Jonah are forced to move in with Ben’s elderly father, three generations of men – one who can’t talk; two who won’t – are thrown together. As Ben battles single fatherhood, a string of well-meaning social workers and his own demons, he learns some difficult home truths. Jonah, blissful in his innocence, becomes the prism through which all the complicated strands of personal identity, family history and misunderstanding are finally untangled.
Jonah is autistic. He doesn’t speak, still wears nappies at age 10, and is a constant source of frustration for his parents. The author is very honest about his condition and doesn’t try to sugarcoat it at all. At the start of the novel, as another day of chaos starts, you really feel for them and how tough their everyday lives must be. And life gets even harder for Ben when Emma suggests he takes Jonah and goes to live with his ageing father, Georg.
Georg was the absolute highlight of this novel for me. He has such a sweet and loving relationship with Jonah which was really touching. I also loved his extremely frank tone of voice! This is a man who tells it like it is.
I found this to be an interesting and eye-opening novel in many ways but I did also struggle to get through it all – not so much because of the subject matter but actually because of Jonah’s parents. Ben is a total nightmare and is on such a path of self-destruction that I found it hard to sympathise with him, while Emma is pretty absent for most of the novel. Although I liked the novel coming from the father’s point of view, I just never really took to him and that did make it much harder for me to get into.
I also didn’t really like the subplot involving Ben’s father and his escape from the Nazis – although this was interesting in its own right, it didn’t quite sit right with the rest of the story for me.
Some bloggers have said they have avoided this book as they felt it would be too sad. And yes, it is a very sad book but it’s also funny in places and ultimately quite hopeful. It definitely taught me a lot about autism and the struggle that families go through to get appropriate care for their children. The endless letters and social workers and the frustrations this causes was very well portrayed in this novel, and the fact that all decisions are ultimately based on cost were very telling and believable. Georg and Jonah himself were both great characters, but Ben and Emma probably spoiled my enjoyment of this novel somewhat, and I found myself not liking it as much as I thought I would.
My rating: 6 out of 10