Book Review of “Shtum” by Jem Lester.
The best word to describe Ben and Emma Jewell’s 11-year-old son Jonah is “shtum.” That’s Yiddish for silent, so in other words, Jonah doesn’t speak. Mostly, Jonah lives in his own world. Of course, Jonah’s diagnosis is obvious; Jonah is autistic. So far, the schools Jonah attended haven’t helped him make any progress. Now, it is up to Ben and Emma to find a place where Jonah can be happy, maybe get him out of his nappies and who knows but perhaps one day, he’ll even start to talk again. While this seems a daunting task, Ben has much more to deal with than just getting through the tribunal that would put Jonah into the best facility possible.
People on the Autism spectrum and with Asperger’s Syndrome seem to be a highly popular, if not inspirational subject for writers. What we didn’t have in our collective consciousness before Mark Haddon wrote “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time,” has developed into a topic of fascination. Mind you, I’m not saying writers are taking advantage of this condition to use as fodder; from what I can see, these authors are writing about their own, firsthand experiences. Furthermore, the authenticity that these writers show in their books is truly heartwarming (not every writer is willing to put their true hearts on their sleeves so publicly).
Of course, there’s always the problem with overkill, which can exhaust readers, and turn them off to a book out of hand (the old ‘not ANOTHER book about X’ syndrome). However, there seems to be enough variety in these books to keep us coming back. This is probably because the many nuances of the condition, which can affect people at so many levels. For example, in “The Rosie Project,” Don Tillman’s Asperger’s allows him a high level of functioning. On the other hand, in the novel “Its. Nice. Outside.,” the afflicted boy Ethan communicates with some level of speech, he’s totally continent, but otherwise he has so many other problems, he’ll probably never lead anything near a normal life. In this case, Jonah seems to understand quite a bit and reacts to things going on around him to some extent, but that stops short of verbal communication, making his condition quite a severe one.
It is important to note that all of these books have far more going for them than just a character with Autism or Asperger’s. So too with Lester’s novel, where the central protagonist is Ben, who has much more to deal with than just where the local council’s tribunal will decide they send Jonah for the coming years. There’s Ben’s running of his father’s business, which he doesn’t like doing, so he also isn’t doing much to make it prosper, so money is a problem (not for the tuition for the fancy special school, but rather to pay for the lawyer and experts so the tribunal will agree that the council should pay for Jonah to go there. That’s how it works in the UK). Another problem is that Emma just threw Ben and Jonah out of the house because she seems to believe that single parents have a better chance of gaining the sympathy of the tribunal. With Ben back in his father’s house, their tensions from the past return. This becomes more evident as Ben starts to realize that what his father withheld from him all his life, he’s suddenly giving away freely to Jonah, including some family secrets. Of course, Ben’s drinking isn’t helping, at least not for more than a few hours at a time.
What heightens this book is that Jonah isn’t the whole story here and neither is his Autism, despite this being a prominent catalyst for the plot. In fact, the story is more about Ben than it is about Jonah, and centers on Ben’s relationships with his wife and father, as well as his own assessment of his own life. In other words, it is somewhat of a coming-of-age story that takes place later in life than one would usually expect. Furthermore, just when you think that things can’t get any worse, something happens to shake everything up, and from that point on, the whole story takes an even sharper turn away from Jonah than before. (Sorry, I can’t say more or I’d be giving away a huge spoiler.) Lester handles this transition so artfully, I was truly impressed, particularly because this is Lester’s debut novel!
Although all this might sound all heavy and dark, Lester’s real talent is keeping this story light enough where you could even say it is funny in places, without ever appearing flippant. Rather, Lester brings the innocence of Jonah’s worldview into his narrative, which softens much of the harsher events going on around him. With his straightforward and easy-going prose, Lester creates an atmosphere that feels very authentic and ultimately honest. Of course, where there is such a high level of sincerity, there is also the chance that a story can get maudlin, but Lester avoids this with true aplomb. This was exactly the type of balance that this story needed, and because of all this, I cannot give this book less than a full five stars, and recommend it very highly.
“Shtum” by Jem Lester is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), eBooks, iTunes (UK iBook, US iBook, UK audiobook and US audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books (where your purchase helps fund literacy programs) as well as from an IndieBound store near you.
PS: Anyone wishing to see a truly excellent TV series about a family with a child on the Autism spectrum, I highly recommend “The A Word,” which is a BBC series based on the Israeli TV series “Yellow Peppers.”