Ben Jewell has hit breaking point. His ten-year-old son Jonah has severe autism and Ben and his wife, Emma, are struggling to cope.
When Ben and Emma fake a separation – a strategic decision to further Jonah’s case in an upcoming tribunal – Ben and Jon
it was amazing
Oh wow. Speechless. Incredible book. Especially as a mother to an autistic son. Absolutely brilliant. Please just read this before you die.
Some reviews are hard to do as you just can’t find enough words to be expressed coherently. I have a million jumbled things to say about this book and need to narrow it down to what is important to the potential reader. This is one of the few books I have read featuring an autistic character that is very true-to-life. Jem Lester really nailed the realism wit
Shtum is a story about family dynamics, relationships and the harrowing experience of raising a autistic child at the extreme end of the spectrum. It is guaranteed to make you laugh, cry and pull at your heartstrings. You will be outraged at a system that is more concerned about saving money, rather than meeting the needs of a vulnerable child. It explores how communication problems do not afflict sufferers of autism alone, but infects a marriage, and Ben’s relationship with his own father. The
The story is told from the perspective of Ben, a guilt ridden thirtysomething father, moving in with his father, Georg, with his autistic son JJ (Jonah) so that the local authority agrees to sending him to a more appropriate, more expensive school. Emma, his wife, states a single father is in a better position to attain the desired outcome of more support and the best school for JJ at a tribunal. The dynamics of three generations of jewish males and their everyday lives is a joy to behold in all its loving complications. It soon transpires that the pretend separation is real and the insecurities that Ben feels about his marriage are rooted in reality. Ben drinks, he drinks a lot whilst trying to cope with JJ. His day job is something that barely impinges on him, he works at his father’s business hiring out catering equipment, but it is Valentine who does the work. He spends time at the pub where he is faking that he works in the construction industry! What he does have are incredible friends in Johnny, Amanda and their son, Tom, who was born at a similar time to JJ.
There is a lot of work entailed in preparing for the tribunal, and the love Ben has for his son spurs him on. This includes visits from social workers, visits to schools, acquiring legal representation, reports from experts etc.. Ben has to face the collapse of his dad’s company due to his negligence. Emma tells him she is not in a position to contribute to costs and that he should look to his father for funds. This is awkward for Ben as he is not close to Georg. Ben and Georg’s relationship is poignant and beautifully portrayed. Georg adores his grandson and tells him stuff he has never told Ben. It takes time for Georg to come round to agreeing what is best for Jonah and in the interim he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Emma serves divorce papers to Ben. Georg is actually dying and rushed to a hospice whilst Ben is attending the tribunal amidst this emotional maelstrom. Nevertheless, Ben reads an account of life as Jonah which allows the panel an unprecedented insight into JJs life to assess his needs.
At Georg’s funeral, the errant Emma explains how she reached the point of marital breakdown to Ben, her addiction to certain drugs just so that she could manage. Her capacity to handle JJ deteriorated and there was no communication with Ben. Ben is astounded, he had absolutely no idea. We are given an insight into the history of alcholism with Ben and its connection with his mother who abandoned him as a child. The tribunal results in JJ’s placement in the desired Oxfordshire school. Ben goes to Hungary to explore his dad’s heritage and the death of Jonatan, the autistic brother of his father he never knew about. He finds the burial site of Jonatan’s body and where he died in the final throes of Nazi rule. The story ends with Ben at the crossroads of moving to a better place in his life.
I cannot put into words how much I loved this book. It has heart, warmth and a compelling narrative. It depicts a picture of a contemporary jewish family, more specifically the males, with all their flaws, foibles, idiosyncracies, love, despair and triumphs. The characters are extraordinary in their complexities and are so real that you believe in them. I adored the incomparable socialist Georg and JJ. Jem Lester has done a super job in his picture of JJ, we feel so empathetic towards him whilst at the same time understanding just what a toll it takes in meeting his needs and caring for him. Many parents of autistic children will sigh with relief upon reading this novel, seeing that others also face similar burdens, battles and joys. He infuses humour and intelligence throughout the story whilst having a keen understanding of the nature of complex human relationships over time. I have no doubt that Shtum will be a highly successfully debut novel for Jem Lester, it is just waiting to be turned into a superb movie with the right director. Many grateful thanks to Orion for a copy of the book via netgalley.
it was amazing
I remember the Yiddish word “shtum” as meaning to keep quiet about something, as in to keep it secret, to yourself, not just to be silent. The U sounds like “put”, rather than like “mum”. **
The author drops us smack in the middle of a family overwhelmed: a severely autistic boy of 10, Jonah, lives with Ben, his alcoholic (but not admitted to it yet) father, and Emma, his over-achieving lawyer mother. Ben seems to be the primary carer now.
They deal daily with cleaning poo off the walls or facin