Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Shtum by Jem Lester

Published on 7th April 2016
Published by Orion
Purchase from Amazon here

The blurb:

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.

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 innocence, becomes the prism through which all the complicated strands of personal identity, family history and misunderstanding are finally untangled.


My review:

I finished reading Shtum a couple of days ago, but have had to take some time to absorb and think about it before writing my review as I wasn't quite sure what I made of it. There has been a lot of chat on social media about this book, and the majority of this is about how wonderful and moving they found Shtum. I don't for one moment doubt that this will be an amazing success and will have many many people talking about it for a long time.

I still find myself conflicted as I write this review. The subject matter is very gritty, centred around Jonah, who is profoundly autistic. He has many limitations and his parents Ben and Emma appear to be at their wits end as life with Jonah is very challenging on a daily basis. They have decided that the best option for them all would be for Jonah to go to a residential school that can better cope for all his needs. The problem is that the place is expensive and the local authority want to plump for cheaper options.

Ben and Emily fake a martial breakup to try and influence the local authority and the educational tribunal panel. However, when Ben and Jonah move in with Bens father things become more complicated rather than simpler.

As a reader I followed and observed Ben's struggles raising Jonah at home. The severity of his autism presents lots of challenges and I can only imagine how difficult this must be for parents and all the obstacles they have to overcome.

Jonah is a very unassuming character. He comes across as quite detached from the real world, but there are glimpses of affection from him, particularly with Ben's father Georg. I really liked Jonah and thought the author was very frank in his portrayal of him. His character was strongly developed to give me some real insight into his situation and made me ponder on what I would do if I were his parent.

Jonah's father Ben is the other main character in the book, and I think perhaps my dislike of Ben has clouded my opinion of the novel. Ben isn't the most instantly likeable man. He seems to be abrupt, detached, a heavy drinker who really just wants to ship Jonah out and get his life back. However, first impressions can be deceptive. Whilst I never really warmed to him I came to appreciate more of his viewpoint as the book progressed, and I was left in no doubt that he loved his son, which I wasn't sure of at the start. It made me question how I think I would respond as a parent if I were in his situation, and whilst I hope I would act differently I of course can't be sure.

I loved Georg, Ben's father. A warm, loving, caring man who has Jonah at the centre of his life, he was a wonderful man. He spends a lot of time talking to Jonah, telling him stories of his past that he has never told to Ben. Towards the end of the book these stories emerge in more detail and I felt I got a better understanding of who he was.

 Shtum is a very thought provoking book, and I can almost sense that I am debating it with myself whilst writing this review. The more I think about it the more I enjoyed the book and can't quite put my finger on what was missing for me. I would love to hear more about what other readers think and it would be a fantastic choice for book groups to read and discuss.

Thank you to Orion for kindly providing a copy in return for an honest review.

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