A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Shtum by Jem Lester isn’t out for a while but it’s one of those books you have to share immediately. As you’re reading your feelings are getting more and more bottled up until you reach the last page and then have to tell somebody, anybody about it or you might explode. Anyway. In April next year you’ll understand and I’ll remind you.
Shtum is the story of three generations of men. Ben Jewell is the narrator. He’s an alcoholic, totally self-indulgent and he’s pretty much failed at everything; his job, his marriage and even being a father. His own father, Georg Jewell is a closed book to Ben, judgemental and distant. And then there’s Jonah. Jonah Jewell is ten and severely disabled with Autism; silent and completely dependent. Jonah is given the opportunity of a place at a hugely expensive but utterly perfect new school. The process to secure funding is long and complex and involves lawyers, specialists and the many departments of Social Services. In order to help their application, Ben’s wife Emma suggests they fake a separation and Ben and Jonah move in with Georg.
And so it begins.
I approached this novel with a degree of trepidation. I have a son with ASD and I’m never quite sure if I want to see it on the page or screen. However, for me Shtum really brought home what a massive spectrum this is and how incredibly lucky our family is to be at the other end of it. Jonah is profoundly disabled, requiring round the clock care and attention. He’s mute, incontinent and cannot be left unattended for even a second. This isn’t something Ben finds easy to deal with. In fact, Ben is so bloody hopeless I really wanted to clatter him over the head on numerous occasions.
I’ve never read a novel that made me feel such a huge range of emotions all the way through. It’s an incredible feat of storytelling. You’re empathising one way. Then the other. You are angry with this one, then that one. Laughing. Then crying. Then joyful. You think you know who’s in the wrong. Then you’re wrong. And it turns out, that this is exactly like real life. Nothing, absolutely nothing is as simple as it first appears.
Shtum really is a novel you give your heart and soul too. You become deeply, emotionally involved as Ben tries (and often fails) to take care of his son, do the best for him and live up to his father’s expectations. It’s the sort of story that makes you lean in closer as you read because you don’t want to miss a single detail. The tragedy is that although Georg is distant to Ben and deeply frustrated with him, Georg and Jonah are so incredibly close and loving with each other. My heart went out to Ben watching his dad be the kind of father to Jonah that he was failing to be.
The humour throughout is so well placed. This could have been a hugely traumatic, depressing, bleak novel about a family trying to deal with a severely disabled child. And yet it was so often warm and funny and the love was always present, even in the darkest times.
Shtum is such a powerful novel I cannot recommend it highly enough. Really. There is everything you could wish for; superb, complex characters, laugh out loud humour, at least a box of tissues worth of tears and warmth and love in abundance. You will be devastated to leave this unconventional yet glorious family behind once you close the book.
Shtum is released on the 7th April 2016 and you can find more details and the highest number of five star reviews I’ve ever seen over on Goodreads.