My grateful thanks to Tracy Fenton of The Book Club on Facebook (#TBConFB) for an advanced reader copy of Shtum by Jem Lester which is published in e-book and hardback by Orion on 7th April 2016.
Unable to manage their autistic son Jonah’s increasingly challenging behaviour, Ben and Emma Jewell are desperately trying to place Jonah into a school that will best meet his needs, but they are meeting resistance from the local authority all the way.
What a story. The premise seems rather bleak but Shtum resonates with a vast range of emotions from fear and self-loathing, through joy and anger, to love and grief. There is humour too so that what could be a totally depressing story is engagingly written and fulfilling to read.
It took me a long time to warm to Ben and this is one of the many strengths of the novel because we see the true effects on the parents of trying to manage an autistic child. Ben drinks far more than is good for him and I wanted to shake him to force him to face his problem. It was not until towards the end of the novel when the text physically begins to fragment and more is revealed about Ben’s past and that of his Jewish father Georg that I fully understood and empathised with him completely. Emma is quite a shadowy character too and when, at the same time as Ben, I received the full picture about her, my heart broke for them both.
Although the story is told from Ben’s first person perspective, at the centre of the whole plot is Jonah. He is complex, frustrating, loving, violent and destructive so that the reader is forced to face the same kind of situations of parents with such autistic children, making Shtum a truly emotional read. My heart goes out to parents struggling to cope in similar situations. What I found so clever in the writing is that there is a paperweight that shines light like a prism and has a central place in placating Jonah and in linking past and present – and in a way Jonah is a similar catalyst for all the others in the book. He is the conduit through which they live their lives. The importance of Jonah is emphasised by the signs that head the chapters or sections of the book, as they are similar to the PECS or Makaton signs frequently used by those with autism. It is this attention to detail and the obvious knowledge of the subject that gives such a profound feeling to reading Shtum.
The title Shtum resonates with meanings on so many levels. Jonah doesn’t speak. Emma and Ben keep shtum about their own real feelings and some of the events that have happened to them, making them miserable and ashamed. Georg doesn’t tell Ben enough about his past so that Ben feels isolated and excluded from his father’s love and one of the most important central messages of the book is that we need to communicate with our loved ones as fully as we can.
I loved Shtum. I didn’t always find it an easy read, but I found it emotional and moving. It has helped me count my blessings.
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