Book Review – Shtum by Jem Lester
Publisher – Orion
Shtum is definitely a book I will not be keeping shtum about. At times heartbreakingly sad, at others wonderfully witty, although the humour would be best described as dark, this is a candid tale about three generations of the Jewell family and what it really means to live with, and care for, an extremely autistic child.
Married couple, Ben and Emma, agree to do whatever it takes to give their autistic son, Jonah, the opportunity of a better life. Jonah is offered a place at a specialist residential school but Ben and Emma have a fight on their hands with the local authority. To strengthen their case, Ben and Emma pretend to split up, after all, it’s difficult enough to care for a severely autistic child without the added problem of single parenting. Ben and Jonah move out and take up residence with Georg, Ben’s father and Jonah’s grandfather.
The three main protagonists throughout are Jonah, Ben and Georg, and all three are brilliantly drawn and flawed. Ben is immature and never really wants to take responsibility for anything, using alcohol to anesthetise himself. Georg, who clearly adores Jonah, is, at times, overly harsh and judgemental of Ben. However, it is ten-year-old Jonah, who sometimes kicks and bites that I really fell in love with. Unable to talk, Jonah is central to the storyline and, as the blurb says, “lives in a world of his own. He likes colours and feathers and the feel of fresh air on his skin. He dislikes sudden loud noises and any change to his daily routine.”
Be warned though, this is not a sugar coated tale of triumph over adversity, or of amazing parents coping with superhuman qualities. This is a story of heartbreak, pity, and self-blame. However, it is also a story about love, of family and secrets, and a story about fathers and sons, and forgiveness. It is tragically real but also warm, insightful and full of compassion. And, as the story unfolds, what becomes painfully obvious and wonderfully ironic is that, although he has no voice, Jonah speaks much louder and more eloquently than either his father or his grandfather.
Clearly based on the author’s own experience, Shtum is a remarkable story that shines a “no holes barred” light on the everyday reality and struggles some families of autistic children experience. Gritty, funny and poignant, it is a marvellous portrayal of ordinary people managing extraordinary difficulties during day-to-day life, and, one that will stay with me for a very long time.