Book Review: Shtum – Jem Lester

I received a copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Published: 7th April 2016 (Orion)9781409166511 (1)

Synopsis: 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. As Ben battles single fatherhood, a string of well-meaning social workers and his own demons, he learns some difficult home truths. Jonah, blissful in his innocence, becomes the prism through which all the complicated strands of personal identity, family history and misunderstanding are finally untangled.

‘Shtum’ comes from the Yiddish word meaning silent or non-communicative which is highly appropriate for this novel on many levels. Firstly there is Jonah Jewell (or JJ as his grandfather calls him), who does not talk, and his father Ben and grandfather, Georg, who choose not to communicate!

Jonah is 10 and is high on the autistic spectrum; he is unable to communicate through speech and has limited non-verbal communication, is not toilet trained and fully reliant on his parents for his every need.  The local authority has decided that a local non-residential secondary school newly specialising in autism is the best place for him however Ben and Emma do not agree and are at breaking point. Ben and Emma’s salvation is Highgrove Manor which is a residential school fully equipped to meet Jonah’s needs, giving him the best possible education, sense of security and quality of life however this comes at a high cost, £200,000 a term which is to be paid for by the local authority.

Emma comes up with the idea of a fake separation to increase their chances in overturning the local authority’s decision. As such, Ben and Jonah move in with Georg, Ben’s 78 year old father. Ben and Georg have a difficult relationship – mainly due to their own inability to communicate with each other. Ben runs the business his father built up however this mainly involves delegating to Valentine and being down the pub drowning his sorrows at the bottom of a pint glass on the pretence of a ‘meeting’. Ben is an alcoholic, he seems both aware and in denial of this fact.

Georg is brilliant with Jonah, taking care of him and communicating without words and seems able to open up to him about his past, much to his son’s annoyance as Ben feels that he can’t talk to him about his heritage.

I loved Lester’s writing style and how the book is both funny and heartwarming at the same time, told from Ben’s perspective, it gives a insight into to life of a single-parent with an autistic child – the challenges that they face doing the most simple of tasks. Lester really brings home the things that parents take for granted, the milestones that children hit which may be difficult or unobtainable for children on the autistic spectrum to achieve.

I really enjoyed the dynamics between Ben and Georg, their way of communicating and the short sentences back and forth. I absolutely adored Georg, he’s the no-nonsense father who is an amazing grandfather, both pushing of Ben and caring to Jonah. His wit and dry sense of humour won me over right from the start. I warmed to Ben as the story went on, as we were shown more depth to his character.

Whilst Shtum is a wonderful book about the challenges of children on the autistic spectrum, how their parents feel isolated and have to fight for a decent education fitting of their child’s needs, Shtum also about the dynamic between 3 generations of Jewish men and the challenges that the older Jewell men have faced and still facing.

About the authorJem Lester c. Catherine Ercilla

Jem Lester was a journalist for nine years and saw the Berlin Wall fall in 1989 – and though there, he denies personal responsibility. He was also the last journalist to interview the legendary Fred Zinnemann, before the director died. He denies responsibility for that too. He taught English and Media studies at secondary schools for nine years. Jem has two children, one of whom is profoundly autistic, and for them he accepts total responsibility. He lives in London with his partner and her two children.  On his inspiration for the book he says: “I think, initially, the idea for Shtum came from the realisation that my own non-verbal, autistic son was more forthright in expressing his wants and needs than I was. Of course, I wanted to dismantle the stereotype of the ‘gifted’ autistic child but at the same time I thought it imperative that the joy and humour of these wonderful, innocent children was recognised and celebrated.”
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