Shtum, by Jem Lester, tells the story of a family caring for a severely autistic ten year old boy, and their struggles to cope with him whilst their own lives fall apart. It is a searingly honest exploration of a marriage at breaking point, of problems with communication, and of generational resentments. It demonstrates love in action when the words cannot be found.
Life for the protagonist, Ben Jewell, is not going well. To further the case of an upcoming tribunal regarding his son Jonah’s ongoing care, Ben’s wife, Emma, suggests a temporary separation. Ben and Jonah move in with his father, Georg, who Ben has not spoken to for months. As if this were not enough, Ben’s business is suffering due to his neglect. He gets through each day by drinking. He drinks a lot.
Georg accepts that his assistance is required but makes it clear that he is not impressed with his son’s behaviour. When Ben overhears Georg chatting to Jonah about his past, something that he has always avoided doing with Ben, he feels anger towards the old man. Their relationship is filled with unspoken resentments stretching back to Ben’s childhood. Now Georg disapproves of Ben’s plans to send his son away.
Emma has all but vanished from their lives so Ben is forced to deal with the cost and organisation of Jonah’s case for the tribunal. He is perplexed by his wife’s behaviour and starts to suspect an affair.
Jonah’s days revolve around routine; when this is upset his reactions become unpredictable, sometimes violent. He is a strong, lively, hungry boy. He is also incontinent. Much of his care involves providing the foods he will eat and cleaning up the mess that is subsequently produced. He is mute and it is unclear how much he understands of what he is told. The vivid portrayal of such a child makes his parent’s actions understandable if not commendable.
This is an emotionally charged read yet is written with humour and frankness. The plot is compelling but it was the character development that particularly impressed. I especially enjoyed the way the author presented Georg, and then revealed why he acted as he did.
A remarkable, moving book that deserves to be read widely. Put this on your wish list for next year.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orion.