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.
Shtum effectively combines humour with heart-wrenching sadness; it’s up and down, a bit like a rollercoaster. The story felt hugely important to read, not just because it was such a mix of emotions, but also because the topic reminds us of the struggles some families and parents face every day, to a point none us could accurately guess without living through it ourselves.
The characters are hugely complex. Ben is so likeable because he’s not perfect – in fact, at times, he’s a bit of a shit! But with everything he’s got going on I kind of feel he has a right to be. At times I really hated Emma but as the novel went on I found myself coming round to her point of view more and more, and a lot more than I imagined I would. And Jonah – the star of the novel – is enigmatic and, at times, utterly charming in his own way!
This is definitely not an ‘easy’ read, but the writing itself IS easy to read because it flows so well, even in parts that seem difficult or confusing. I didn’t really know what to expect before I read, and I’m glad of that – it’s easier to completely lose yourself in a book when you haven’t read too much about it, though I was aware that it had had great reviews. The way Jem Lester writers really leaves you with a sense of Ben’s (and Jonah’s, in a way) confusion as they essentially try to muddle through life together – there’s no handbook for this kind of parenting!
Despite the subject matter being hard-hitting, I really enjoyed reading Shtum, and it’s a testament to Jem Lester’s writing that he can take such a tricky subject and put it to readers with just the right amount of emotion, humour and love. Definitely recommended!
Many thanks to Orion Publishing Group and Netgalley for providing a copy of this novel in return for an honest review