I'd like to think Orion for sending me Jem Lester's debut novel, this terrific book via Netgalley.
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.
A powerful, emotional, but above all enjoyable read, perfect for fans of The Shock of the Fall and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
Told from Ben's point of view we get the full perspective on what it's like to be a single parent looking after an autistic child, his son Jonah.
Helping him is his elderly father Georg and with the three of them it's a male dominated book, for me quite an interesting point of view to look at when reading. Jonah aged ten doesn't speak at all and Ben's communication with his Dad is a bit fragmented and this cleverly seemed to reflect Jonah's own inability to communicate to others on what he wants and what he's feeling.
There were times where I found myself laughing along with these characters of the sadness that an illness such as autism brings on a family, but that seeing the funny side of things eases the seriousness of it. I really did feel an emotional connection with the main characters going through such trying times of parenthood, each of them dealing with their struggles in different ways such as drug taking and alcohol. It's one of those stories where you're better at understanding things when you're in the situation yourself, however I did feel a great deal of empathy for Ben.
Catering to Jonah's ever need including changing his nappy, bathing him, and then importantly fighting a case to get him the professional help he needs to improve his way of life by going to a specialist school for autistic children- this all comes to head when Ben and Emma file a court case to get Jonah into a suitable school.
To top off this difficult time, Ben and Emma's relationship is on the rocks and Ben seems well and truly alone with some help from his Dad. I really felt for Ben throughout this book, and yet even when he got frustrated with Jonah you could see that there's nothing that he wouldn't do for that little boy. It made my heart feel all warm to read of their father and son love which we also see with Ben and Georg, although a little hostile at times I found Georg to be the rock of the trio. We learn of his own background as a Jew during the war which I felt gave this book an even more powerful motion over me, and the modesty of his survival is quite remarkable.
I wasn't a fan of Emma, despite her personal struggles in relation to Jonah and to Ben I found her to be a bit of a lost cause and I'm glad she didn't feature an awful amount in this book as I don't think I would have given it a high rating.
Despite all of this going on you see Jonah quietly happy with his life, munching on Marmite toast, playing in the garden and having fun bubble baths. He was simply adorable, an innocent child who didn't know any different and was perfectly content.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I can already sense that it's going to be a huge success, I didn't want to put it down as it's one of those books that gives you comfort and provides you with the hope that you can get through anything. Life will only bring you what you can handle, big or small and I felt that this book really demonstrates this point. I like reading books that discuss health matters such as autism, it gives greater understanding to those who aren't aware of what the illness is and what it's like to live with a person with the condition and the impact it has on everyone involved.
Well done to Jem Lester for writing such a wonderfully written book, there's no doubt that it deserves a five star rating.
Jem Lester was a journalist for nine years and saw the Berlin Wall fall in 1989- and though there, he denies personal responsibility. He was also the last journalist to interview the legendary Fred Zinnemann, before the director died. He denies responsibility for that too. He has two children, one of who is profoundly autistic and, for them, he accepts total responsibility. He lives in London with his partner, Catherine and her two children. (Source)