Book review: Shtum by Jem Lester

Wednesday, April 27, 2016 Permalink

I have to admit I’m a bit nervous about reviewing this book as I’m worried I’ll offend people. I like to think I’m fairly diplomatic, but my political correctness only goes so far.

It’s not that I didn’t like this book, which is about the family of a profoundly autistic boy, because I did. It’s just that the content is kinda confronting – in a thought-provoking, sad and heartwarming way.

Book review: Shtum by Jem LesterShtum
by Jem Lester
Published by Orion
on April 12th 2016
Source: Hachette Australia
Genres: Literary Fiction
ISBN: 9781409162971
Pages: 368

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.

Shtum -> Yiddish word, meaning silent, or to become non-communicative

The book kicks off with Ben and his wife Emma fighting with council / social services to get Jonah into a residential school. He’s not deemed ‘needy’ enough so Emma suggests Ben and Jonah move out so the latter’s situation can be revised… living with a single parent ‘n’ all.

Ben and his father Georg are kinda estranged though Georg loves Jonah and is horrified Ben and Emma are considering sending him ‘away’. Indeed Georg’s patience with Jonah is lovely.

Ben’s struggling. He’s drinking heavily and letting the family business go to ruin – all of which he blames on the situation with Jonah. However… we do eventually learn that he was drinking before Jonah was born and it’s not just the stress of his son that’s caused him to go off the rails.

Ben is an enigma. You’d think it’d be Jonah who’d be confounding readers, but – for me – it was Ben. He spends much of the first quarter of the book frustrated with Jonah. Angry and frustrated. Life’s all about survival and getting through each day. He seems to resent his son. And then suddenly… surprising affection.

I’m finding it hard to convince myself that my motives are pure, but you won’t judge me, will you? You understand that I’d never abandon you…..

Just know Jonah, that whatever anyone says, I’m going to find the belief to fight for you, because you being okay is so important to me. I can’t be okay if you’re not. p 55

We feel sorry for Ben, annoyed at Emma. And then things change again. Ben’s drinking history comes to light as well as the extent of his lack of regard for (what was his father’s) business. And we learn that Emma’s been struggling as well. And later again, we learn when and why Ben started drinking.

This novel is achingly sad in parts. We kinda know there isn’t going to be a ‘happily ever after’. Jonah isn’t going to get ‘better’. Neither Emma nor Ben will have the child they once yearned for.

Towards the end of last year the cogs finally slipped into place. Jonah is autistic, he will never speak. Being attacked, scratched and punched, having your home constantly smell of air freshener, acts as quite a truth serum…..

Do any of you know how it feels to know your child will never call you Mummy? p 235-6

As I mentioned… I struggled a little with the rollercoaster ride that is parenthood – let alone a parent of a child with a disability or learning disorder. As someone who didn’t have children but wanted them, I wondered if I only wanted the ‘dream’. How would I have coped with a child with a disability. Or one who grew up to be a drug-addicted felon? Or one who just wasn’t the perfect creature I’d dreamed of? Is being childless better? Easier? Did I get off lightly? Or have I missed out, either way?

So… this book is kinda confronting.

Interestingly, there are A LOT of books out there at the moment featuring children and young people with some level of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): Frank in Be Frank With Me; Jimmy in The Eye of The Sheep; the boy in The One in a Million Boy; and and Eli in Missing You. All written beautifully and respectfully.

There’s a particularly poignant scene near the end where Ben’s speaking on behalf of Jonah…

Sometimes I just grab what I want and run away with it and then someone takes it off me and I pull their hair and dig my nails into them because I’m angry now and don’t know how to stop being angry because I don’t know what anger is or where it comes from and then sometimes water comes our of my eyes and I stop feeling angry and I feel better. p 240

Because I can’t help myself, my only negative would be the very end and the foray into Georg’s life. I’m not sure it impacted enough on the rest of the plot to warrant being awarded the honour closing the book, but… that’s just my little gripe.

This is a story of love, devotion and sacrifice, and it’s a story of family and of human frailty.

Shtum by Jem Lester was published in Australia by Hachette on 12 April 2016.

I received a copy of this book for review purposes. 

  • Sanch @ Living my Imperfect Life
    April 27, 2016

    I ordered this book online only last week after reading a blurb. Coincidentally, I had been reading Eye of the sheep at the time and it’s exactly what I thought re the similarities which is what prompted me to buy this. I enjoyed Eye of the sheep even though it was quite sad. Will be reviewing it shortly. 🙂

    • Debbish
      April 28, 2016

      Oh I LOVED Eye of the Sheep Sanch. It’s one of my favourite books! I hope you enjoy this one as well.

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