Review: SHTUM

Posted April 7, 2016

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: SHTUM SHTUM by Jem Lester
Published by Orion on 7th April 2016
Genres: Contemporary
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher

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.

Ben is father to Jonah, a profoundly autistic ten year old who doesn’t speak, has no sense of danger, is doubly incontinent and requires full-time care.

The time has come to arrange Jonah’s progression to secondary school. Ben and his wife Emma deem the council’s selected school wholly inappropriate for Jonah’s needs and so face an appeal and tribunal to get the best placement for their son.

Emma informs Ben that their appeal would be more likely to succeed should Jonah live with a single parent, more specifically a single father. So it is that Ben and Jonah move in with Ben’s 78 year old father Georg and Emma leaves for Hong Kong on business, putting the responsibility for the appeal firmly at Ben’s door.

Ben and his father have never been particularly close, but the three generations of Jewells begin life under one roof. This is an aspect of the book I particularly enjoyed – 3 generations of Jewell men living together. Ben and Georg who won’t speak and Jonah who doesn’t speak. We witness the bonds between them and the rebuilding of a somewhat dysfunctional relationship between father and son. We also see the beautiful relationship between a grandfather and his mute, autistic grandson.

The fact that Ben and Georg both confide in Jonah was rather interesting. Their secrets are after all safe with him; he doesn’t talk. Ben overhears Georg share their family history with Jonah, things he had never been told or thought to ask. While at first Ben is jealous, eventually he sees it for what it is, a grandfather sharing stories with his grandson.

I really loved how we gradually uncovered the family history along with Ben. Georg was born in Hungary to a Jewish family before fleeing the Nazis. This whole aspect of the story was fascinating and heartbreaking.¬†Oh and just when you think this story couldn’t possibly get more emotional Georg (a brilliant character) faces his own health problems.

The main focus of this story though is Jonah, his autism and Ben’s fight to get the best for his son. Honestly, this book is an eye-opener. While I perhaps thought myself somewhat familiar with autism, I realise now that I absolutely was not.

The author Jem Lester is himself father to a profoundly autistic child and this knowledge further increases the impact of this incredible book: from the details of day-to-day life, to the corresponding emotions; the inability to be selfish, giving all his attention to Jonah (when sober); from the frustration and anger to the incomparable happiness in the rare moment when Jonah allows physical contact. Not only did it open my eyes but the honesty of it tugged at my heart.

The book itself is written beautifully and in such a way that the love for Jonah shines through. It’s an emotional read but it’s an absolute must-read.

It educated me, not just with regards to autism itself but also the impact upon the families, their relationships and the isolation they endure. It also demonstrated the difficult, lengthy and emotional journey that is involved in getting help or care. Furthermore, I was astounded to discover the costs involved in an appeal or tribunal, together with the actual cost of residential placement itself. Truly, these are incredible figures and highlight the difficulties faced by many. Moreover, it is saddening to see the direct impact that cost cutting by the authorities can have on those that truly need the help. This may be a work of fiction but the issues addressed in this novel are far from fictional!

I enjoyed the way this story was told. Intertwined with the story itself are letters regarding Jonah’s care, family letters as well as dialogue from the tribunal. This variety of story-telling kept me thoroughly engaged and desperate to read on.

This is a multi-stranded novel. From the relationships between fathers and sons to the impact of autism, from alcohol addiction to escaping Nazi Hungary. This novel is packed with issues and emotion.

I could go on for hours about Shtum – I’ve actually read it twice – but what I really want to say is just read it!¬†It’s a special novel that will educate while simultaneously¬†breaking your heart.