Discovering Shtum: Guest Post by Laura Williams

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Laura Williams is agent to Jem Lester, author of the fabulous ‘Shtum’ (which I review here). In this guest post she explains what drew her to the novel.

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Almost three years ago to the day I’m writing this, I went to one of City University’s City Nights readings. A monthly event above a pub in Clerkenwell, students on the university’s novel writing MA course read a chosen section of their work to friends, family, coursemates, tutors, and the odd agent looking for new talent. In 2013, I was an assistant at PFD, attending the event to scope out the submissions we’d be receiving in the summer as part of a prize we sponsor for the course. Each year we receive manuscripts of the final year students’ work, and the author we think has the most promise is given representation by the agency. So, I was there to get a jump on what we’d be reading that summer.

Three years later, I’m an agent at PFD representing my own clients. I’ve been to dozens of creative writing readings, and I’ve heard hundreds of students read their work. I don’t remember any as vividly as I remember Jem Lester reading the opening of Shtum on that rainy night in Clerkenwell.

When Jem started reading, I only knew it was a novel about a boy with autism. The book starts with an everyday scene in the lives of Ben and Emma and their ten-year-old non-verbal autistic son, Jonah. Ben and Emma’s morning ritual of bathing, changing and feeding Jonah, terrified to take their eyes off him for a moment unless he destroys the kitchen in his quest for ice cream, as happens in the opening of the book, leave his parents exhausted and despairing that anything will ever get better for them, or Jonah will ever get the support he needs. In an email I sent Jem the next day, I described his extract as “bruisingly raw, open and honest”, but it was also hilarious in its unflinching look at the realities of raising an autistic child.

I spend most of my time at my desk, reading manuscripts, figuring out my own feelings about a project. Readings are wonderful, because when I laughed at Jonah’s obliviousness to his own disastrous exploits, or when my breath caught when Emma broke down, I was so aware of the roomful of people in this pub in Clerkenwell feeling the same way, doing the same things. It was a first hint of the emotional impact that Shtum would later have on readers of the book, and I knew as soon as I heard that first few pages that it was something special.

Jonathan Myerson, who runs the novel writing course at City, gave me Jem’s contact details, and I emailed him the next day to tell him how special I thought the book could be. Jem told me what a morale booster that was, while he was finishing the first draft of the manuscript. A few months later, Jem was unanimously crowned the winner of the PFD/City prize for that year. By that time, I had been promoted and was starting to take on my own clients, and I was thrilled to start working with Jem editorially.

Two years after I first met Jem, I sold the book to Jemima Forrester at Orion, who has been an incredible champion for the book. The amazing team at Orion fell in love with the book the same way I did. Now, a year on from the deal, the book is about to be published. Shtum has grown from a few words read to a handful of people, to a book that even before publication has captured the hearts and minds of hundreds of readers. It’s been a privilege.

A couple of weeks ago, author, editor and agent went to listen to the audiobook of Shtum being recorded. Sitting in the recording studio, headphones on, listening to Jem’s characters come to life in a brand new way, while Jem himself sat there, mouth open, it felt like it had all come full circle. For a book about communicating through silence as much as through speaking, I couldn’t be happier that Jem gave voice to this story on that rainy night in Clerkenwell three years ago.

Jem Lester c. Catherine Ercilla        banner

This post opens the Shtum Blog Tour. Other stops are detailed on the banner above, do check them out.

Book Review: Shtum

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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.