Book review: Shtum by Jem Lester


Shtum, written by Jem Lester, encapsulates the story of a family that falls apart as they care for their son who is at the severe end of the autistic spectrum. Appealing to their local authority to place Jonah in a residential home that can meet his intrinsic, educational and daily needs, the novel offers a moving portrayal of autism. Throughout the novel, the reader is given glimpses into how loving, aggressive, gentle and destructive an autistic child can be. Add to this a brutal interrogation of a loveless marriage, the frustrations of parenthood between generations and most explicitly, a fundamental breakdown in communication, the level of emotion in Shtum is debilitating for the characters and the reader alike.

In order to strengthen their case against the authorities, protagonist Ben Jewell and his wife Emma split up. This is a layered juncture in the novel, filled with deceit, misunderstandings, a yearning for independence and the struggle for both husband and wife to find themselves; re-establishing who they are outside of marriage, parenthood and being carers.

Ben, who is forced to take sole custody of Jonah, is denied this opportunity. Moving in with his own father, Georg, Ben organises his days around the ongoing care for his son while avoiding the hostility thrust towards him by his own father. Georg strongly disagrees with sending Jonah away and shares more of himself with his grandson than he ever did with Ben.

Resentment is rife throughout this novel. Ben loses his wife, feels unsuccessful as a father because of Jonah’s autism and fails as a son as he struggles to communicate with his father, run the family business and understand their history which so strongly informs his present. As his own life spirals out of control, and his son’s life is controlled by lawyers and educational specialists, Ben finds comfort in a heavy drinking habit.  

The most remarkable thing about this novel – in between its observations of living with a disabled child and the frustrations of family life – is the intricate way in which communication,  both its breakdown and its necessity, is explored. So imposing and yet so broken, this novel creates an outstanding intimacy between the reader and the characters, particularly as the plot moves towards Jonah’s tribunal.

Jem Lester’s Shtum takes a refreshing format. Dark spells of cross-generational torment are grounded by the novel’s format which depicts emails, handwritten notes, and official documentation. The narrative crochets around the introspection of a mute child, the strangulated conversations between Ben and his father and the awkward confrontations between husband and wife.

Shtum is heartbreaking. With so little room for happiness, Jem Lester has written a novel that is honest and bittersweet in its humour. So close to what some families go through day to day, I am grateful that this novel educates – a whisper in the silence that can so often surround disability. Eloquently written, poignant, and beautiful, this is a definite book for your ‘to be read’ list.

Thank you to Orion Publishing for giving me the opportunity to review this novel. 


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