Shtum by Jem Lester reviewed

Jem Lester
January 26, 2017

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. Perfect for fans of David Nicholls, THE SHOCK OF THE FALL and THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME.

Shtum is the story of Jonah, a severely autistic 10 year old, his father Ben, his mother Emma and Georg his grandfather written by Jem Lester. Dealing with Jonah has taken a toll on Ben and Emma’s relationship. Trying to get Jonah into a suitable educational establishment is proving hard and his parents decide to separate to make him a priority case. It is obvious from the start that Jonah is at the severe end of the autistic spectrum. It is equally obvious that all is not well in Ben’s life generally.

I found the writing here often deceptively light. Without recourse to the author’s notes you quickly realise that this is written by someone who has dealt with autism. The light writing style also managed to convey the emotions effectively for me. While it can be quite a dark read at times there is also humour here. I loved Georg as a character – he is very Jewish in that dry wit sense. While the story is primarily about Jonah’s problems it does also concern other relationships. Ben gets to know his father far better and probably himself too. If you think Ben’s life is troubled at the start there is more to come.

I enjoyed “A Boy Made of Blocks” which is a similar story in some senses. However, having read this, the other one feels a bit “sugar coated” while this one seems very gritty. There is a feeling that no punches are pulled here. I’d like to thanks the author for the statements of both parents to the tribunal. They are some of the more moving writing I’ve read recently – thanks – and I imagine there will be damp eyes as people read this part and the book generally. I’d recommend this book to anyone who the idea appeals to. It’s an easy enough read with plenty of power and some smiles in it too.

Note – I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review