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Shtum by Jem Lester

March 2, 2016

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

Jonah Jewell does not speak because he is severely autistic. He needs a severely regulated regime in order to get through the day without creating a sometimes violent disturbance. His parents struggle to manage their loved but difficult to handle son. They know that with his incontinence and other autism issues, he really needs intensive specialist care in order to thrive.

Getting that care is a whole other issue. Their local authority is resisting the idea that Jonah should be moved to a top notch residential school, preferring the less expensive, but much less suitable, day school option.
In a desperate attempt to place Jonah where he will be happiest and best cared for, Jonah’s mother Emma suggests to her husband, Ben, that they separate to give their application more chance of success.
So Ben and Jonah move out of the family home and into Ben’s father Georg’s home. It is soon clear that there isn’t much of a relationship between Ben and his father. Like Jonah, they don’t really talk either.
But Ben and Emma are not quite model parents. It soon dawns on Ben that Emma is enjoying their separation too much and that their marriage is in trouble. And Ben himself is drinking too much and starts failing to deliver on his responsibilities.

Living with Jonah is a strain and however much he loves him, Ben is clearly not coping.
But Georg and Jonah form a bond and find their own way to communicate with each other. And as Ben watches that relationship develop, he begins to understand more about his father than he ever had before.
And that’s really what lies at the heart of this book – the difficulties that men have in relating to each other; the way that communication is so much more than just throwing out words, but about understanding, listening and emotionally engaging with each other.

Ben and Emma are far from perfect parents, but as the backstory of Georg is revealed, it becomes clear that Ben, Georg and Jonah have all benefitted from the lessons that the situation has offered.

Thankfully humour and some quite dysfunctional relationships stop this book from descending into emotional schmaltz.
Shtum benefits from a sometimes brutal honesty about the trials of bringing up an autistic child. You may not grow to love all the characters, but you certainly understand more about them at the end. And there are not so many books out there that focus on male relationships, so this book should be welcomed for that alone.

An engaging, sometimes emotional read, leavened by humour. Well worth reading.

Shtum is published by Orion on 7 April 2016

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From → Literary Fiction

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