Jem Lester is a former journalist and secondary school English and Media Studies teacher. Shtum is his first novel, and is a result of his experience of being a parent to a severely autistic son, also named Jonah1. It is marketed as “perfect for fans of David Nicholls, and anyone who loved The Shock of the Fall, The Rosie Project, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time2. A friend who has read it sang praises about it, and even said it made her cry.
Everything in that previous paragraph actually made me feel disinclined to read this book. The only David Nicholls novel I’ve read is Us, and I wasn’t a big fan. I quite enjoyed The Rosie Project, but it was not heartbreaking, nor did I feel like shedding tears at any part of that book. I have not read The Shock of the Fall or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time so I have a half-informed impression. Most of all, I know autism can be heartrending, and it is not a topic that I think of lightly. But read it I must, and with a reluctant heart, I soldiered on.
I was pleasantly surprised. Really, the mention of The Rosie Project should have given me an idea; I thought it just got lumped with all those other books because it had a character with Asperger’s syndrome. But I believe the comparability is more with the style of the text — Shtum has a breezy style, and I reckon I could have flown through the book in a day and a half if not for real life responsibilities.
Do not let the carefree style fool you though, because it does take you through painful situations. I was cognitively confused at first because the lightness of the text seemed dissociative with the matters that were unfolding, but I got used to it and realised that this was how the author wanted it. He did not want it to be a miserable read despite the harshness of what he was going to narrate. I thought it was a commendable effort. And the author being a father to an autistic son himself, I guess it was natural that the book would also be read through the eyes of the child’s father, Ben (I must add that this is not an autobiographical work despite one feature of the plot that was a “pretty close” depiction3).
Jonah, the book’s ten-year-old child, was a challenge and a struggle for his parents Ben and Emma. He has severe autism, and this means he cannot verbally communicate with his parents and gets violent towards himself and others when frustrated. Jonah is still wearing nappies, and he seems to have a predilection for sensory exploration. This requires almost constant supervision as he would sometimes smear his poo on the walls if left unchanged, raid the kitchen cupboards and fridge, or run around the house and backyard naked.
Ben has a strained relationship with his father, and so it has mostly been him and Emma caring for Jonah, and it is taking its toll on their relationship. I suppose this is where the comparison with David Mitchell comes in, although I refuse to explicate on this based on only one Mitchell book. But Shtum also depicted a believable marital relationship: their struggles brought about by their current situation, along with battling personal demons.
However, what pulled my heartstrings the most was the awkward parent-child relationship between Ben and his father Georg, because it hit close to home. Childhood memories and impressions make such a lasting impact, along with suppositions and expectations. Ben and Georg did not openly talk with each other, with Ben thinking his father was cold and distant as opposed to how he treats Jonah, and Georg saying that he hid his difficulties from his son as best as he could. The resolution of this aspect of the plot nearly made me cry, and my throat is constricting as I type this, while I recall it.
This book hits on issues that a lot of people can relate to — marital problems, stunted relationships with parents, love for one’s children, and addiction. Pick your personal struggle, and wham-bam-kablam, let the book take it right to your gut. For this reason, I’d recommend this book to anyone. However, if you are going to read this to have a glimpse of someone with autism, bear in mind that there is a broad range of spectrum diagnoses, and there are those who can function almost independently with minimal supervision. Even people with autism are individually unique, and they will all have different developmental needs, even those with the same diagnosis.
Shtum comes out tomorrow 07 April 2016, and published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, an imprint of Orion Publishing.
“…the realisation that without loving myself, I cannot hope to love another.”
– Jem Lester, Shtum
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Weidenfeld & Nicolson for the advanced copy. This review was in no way influenced by this circumstance, however, and I would have freely lambasted this book if it was what it deserved.