I read this book a month or so ago and have only just got around to reviewing it. Why? I was still struggling to put into words how I felt. It’s a painfully honest, beautiful and heart-breaking novel and I’m in complete awe of Jem Lester.
“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 ignorance, becomes the prism through which all the complicated strands of personal identity, family history and misunderstanding are finally untangled.
Funny and heart-breaking in equal measure, Shtum is a story about families, forgiveness and finding a light in the darkest days.”
We’re lucky enough to work with Dulwich Books, who ran an event last month with Jem alongside Monica Wood. I already had Shtum downloaded from NetGalley (thank you Sam Eades!) so that gave me the push to dive in. I unfortunately couldn’t go along to the event but Sophie did, and came back almost close to tears from listening to Jem speak about Shtum and his life which inspired the book.
I think finding out Jem’s own son suffers from autism, and in a lot of ways is the Jonah from the book, made the novel even more heart-wrenching than it already was. The problem I had at first, was that I went into the book with the idea of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, as some reviews had likened it to. I think the only similarity there is the fact that the characters suffer from some sort of autism. Jem’s book is not as light, or as easy to read as Curious Incident, and I don’t mean that in a bad way at all – just I wasn’t prepared for the book as I should have been.
The fantastic thing about Jem’s writing is the light and shade, one second you would be finding moments funny, crying with laughter and the next your tears would turn to sadness. I imagine – with respect – that that’s probably what it’s like for families of those suffering. I’ve never lived with someone with autism so can’t begin to understand what it’s like, but this book is a complete eye-opener to the trials and tribulations of such an illness. It shows you the reality of it, rather than the glossier side and funny quirks I remember from Curious Incident which seems, in comparison, to be quite easy to live with. The politics and governmental battles which parents have to undergo just to get what’s best for their child, the selflessness of wanting to send your son away because it might actually be best for him. I’ve read reviews which condemn the character of Emma for leaving, or giving up, but I completely empathised. We’re seeing that from the outside, but I imagine living with it every day, without much improvement, would drive a lot of people, good people at that, to give up.
I adored Jonah’s grandfather, Ben’s father. I loved their relationship and their muddled life all together and in more than one scene, it made me cry. The daily battle of these characters was gruelling, Jonah’s innocence and simplicity was in some ways, cute and in others completely heart-breaking. I found myself getting to the end and feeling quite bereft, left with not what I would call a happy ending but a hopeful one and my heart just went out to Ben, who had stuck by his son in everything and lost so much in the process. I can’t imagine having a child you can’t even speak to but the communication they use instead is a really warming one and it was touching to see the bond between them.
It wasn’t an easy read, but it was an enlightening one and I think this book is incredibly important for people to see into such a difficult life, difficult for not only for the sufferer, but the families which devote everything to their child. It’s not one of those books which glamorises illness or ‘disabilities’ but shows them for what they are, both happy and sad, and incredibly hard, rather than making the illness suit the story they are trying to tell.
It’s out on the 7th April from Orion – I suggest you have tissues ready.