Review: Shtum by Jem Lester

ShtumJem Lester’s exceptional debut, Shtum, poignantly depicts the love, anger, guilt and exhaustion felt by the parents of a young boy with severe learning disabilities.

The autism afflicting eleven-year-old Jonah isn’t the kind most readers will be familiar with – that is, the kind displayed by Raymond in the movie Rain Man, or Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Such is the profoundness of Jonah’s autism, he will never develop language; he communicates through laminated cards. Added to that is his complete unpredictability and fearlessness; he is a boy who requires constant monitoring, and is never anything less than a handful. But crucially, Jonah is not a caricature – an embodiment of autism at its highest spectrum. He is a boy with a personality. He is distinct. He is special, like all children. He is the son of Ben and Emma Jewell, and despite their perpetual exhaustion and fluctuating emotions, there is never any doubt, Jonah is loved, and he always will be. But life is not easy – for any of them. And the sad reality is, Jonah needs better care than they can provide at home. He needs placement at a specialist residential school – but the rigmarole involved in securing a slot seems insurmountable when the novel begins…

Both Ben and Emma are at breaking point. The cracks that have always existed in their marriage have turned into chasms. So, believing the breakdown of their marriage would increase the likelihood of Jonah’s placement at a specialist school – it’s a decision that needs to be made by the courts, based on assertions by various well-meaning social workers – Ben and his son move into his Jewish father’s home. This is not a match made in heaven; father and son have a strained relationship, and neither have ever showed much interest in making peace. But for Jonah’s sake, they put aside their differences, and over the next few months Ben battles his own demons, all the while coming to terms with the breakdown of the various relationships in his life, while the shadow of Jonah’s hearing looms large.

Jem Lester’s Shtum is darkly comical, searingly honest, and unputdownable. It’s a book that needs to be read, so that people understand the challenges facing the parents of children with developmental disabilities, and the ripple effects of these hardships – but also because it’s simply a stunning work of fiction, absolutely absorbing and affecting, and in my opinion, one of the finest novels I’ve read this year.

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