Review: Shtum by Jem Lester

by Jem Lester

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.

(cover image and summary lifted from Goodreads)

Series: Standalone
Publisher: Orion
Expected publication date:  April 7, 2016
Source/Format: e-ARC via Netgalley
Purchase link: Book Depository
My Rating: ★★★★☆

My Thoughts:
Full disclosure: I am really eager to read this book with it pitched as perfect for fans of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. While The Curious Incident is about Christopher, a young mathematician with a different view of our world; Shtum is more about the people around Jonah, a boy seemingly trapped in his own beautiful world. 

Shtum is told in Ben’s first person PoV. It started with what seems to be one of the routinary mornings in his family where he cleans up Jonah, his son with severe autism, while his wife Emma prepares breakfast. They just received a rejection letter for their request for Jonah’s placement in a specialist residential school. Fraught with disappointment and misery, both husband and wife decided to fake a separation to improve Jonah’s case in the tribunal. They will never have this routinary day again. Ben and Jonah will have to stay with Ben’s father, Georg.

Ben’s voice is that of an alcoholic pessimist loaded with self-pity. His narration is most times abruptly cut off from scene to scene like he’s telling something then passed out from drinking then starts telling the next thing. Ben is not exactly a character to love but the magic of the book is that, just when you start to decide to really hate on Ben, it pulls you in and you’ll end up really having a lot of empathy towards him. His story is not about his quest for his own greatness, no he is too cynic for that. It’s about how even a broken man with no good prospects on the horizon for his own life finds the will and determination to fight for his son’s future.

Although Ben is not too likable and well, to avoid revealing too much of the plot, I’ll keep my opinions of his wife Emma to myself, other characters are actually endearing. Georg as a grandfather is genuinely fond of Jonah. Him as a father is a weird support system to Ben; watch out for lots of snarky father and son banter. Mauritz who is an ever loyal bestfriend to Georg provides the much-needed comic relief whenever he is around. Ben’s bestfriend Johnny is the right mix of bestfriend whom Ben needs. Johnny’s family is supportive, too. There’s the sweet teacher, Maria and at the center of it all is the sweet boy Jonah traipsing on his own beautiful world, mindless of the ugly people who do not understand the situation he is in.

This book is so honest and harsh with the realities of having a special son that it left me utterly messed up in a rollercoaster of emotions. Feels include, but not limited to: tears of mini-heartbreaks, bursts of anger, snorts of bitter laughs, warm glint of hope. If I might squeeze some more of what I liked about the book, I’ll add that there is a fine display of tension at the middle part on whether a residential placement is really what’s best for Jonah, shown through Georg’s character. There are also a couple of small twists, we all love to be mildly surprised, thank you very much. And an added bonus is Georg’s backstory. The only thing that bothered me a bit were the few times when I can sense the author lurking behind the thoughts of Ben (when Ben used metaphors like a writer and not someone who runs a catering rental business) and in a letter written by Georg (when Georg used dialogues, maybe that’s just me because I don’t write letters like that). Aside from that tiny thing, Shtum is a fascinating book worthy of your precious reading time.
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