Having been immediately intrigued by its premise I was very excited to receive a proof copy of Shtum by Jem Lester. Ahead of its release in April it has been subject to numerous rave reviews and has gathered many fans. On reading this I can happily say it is worth the hype.
‘He’s not just my autistic son, he’s my son.’
The focus of the story is Jonah Jewell, a ten-year-old boy who has severe autism. The challenges associated with bringing him up have led his parents, Ben and Emma, to breaking point. The physical and emotional strain on the couple takes its toll and has an effect on their careers and more importantly, their marriage.
‘We are both terrified, I realise. At a pivotal point in our lives where the future lies in someone else’s hands.’
Due to the level of care Jonah requires Ben and Emma wish to appeal to move Jonah to a more appropriate residential school. In an attempt to further Jonah’s case at the tribunal Ben and Emma come to a drastic decision – they decide to fake a separation. In the hope that being a struggling single parent may encourage them to place Jonah in the more expensive school Ben and Jonah move to live with Ben’s elderly father, Georg.
‘Not only has it robbed Jonah of the ability to talk and interact like a human is supposed to, but it has robbed those around him of the ability to admit their pain to each other.’
The move sees three generations of the Jewell family all under one roof. One of whom does not have the ability to speak whilst the other two do not speak as much as they should. I loved to see the relationship between the three of them and I liked how Ben and Georg’s lack of communication reflected Jonah’s situation. It was also heart-warming to see how much Georg doted on Jonah, and was interesting to see how this relationship affected Ben. It is here we realise that there is something beneath the surface, something missing from Ben’s relationship with his father. This family history is woven throughout the story, gradually untangling itself to reveal things that have remained unsaid for many years.
‘These are just numbers, but to those who will decide his fate, so is Jonah.’
Jem Lester has personal experience of raising an autistic child and this was easy to see whilst reading this novel. It was a vivid, honest portrayal of the challenges associated with bringing up a child with special needs. At points this was extremely moving and I couldn’t help but feel for the family as they battled to get the best for their child. Aside from the day to day care there was the matter of relaying these difficulties to the social workers, doctors and teachers who are to decide his fate. Whilst for Ben, Jonah is his much loved son, to some of the social workers he is another statistic, something to be measured by cost. However, despite the difficulties they face one thing remains clear throughout, the unconditional love that Ben has for his child.
‘…the physical, sensory world that Jonah inhabits is the purest form of truth there is.’
I really enjoyed Shtum. It was a moving story of autism which was tender and humorous. It is a story about fathers and sons, love and determination and a much loved, precious child.
Shtum is due to be published on 7th April 2016 by Orion Books. Many thanks to Sam Eades at Orion Books for providing a proof copy for review.
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