Shtum by Jem Lester

Shtum

‘He’s not just my autistic son, he’s my son.’

Where to start? I finished this book on Boxing Day 2015 and it’s still with me. I couldn’t possibly have tried to review it before now – I needed a bit of distance.

Most of us *think* we know a bit about autism. Some of us may *think* we know quite a lot. For nearly all of us, this is a ‘leave your pre-conceived ideas at the door’ kind of read. It was without doubt one of my top reads of 2015 and now has a pretty secure spot in my Top Ten of all time.

‘I lived a fairy-tale life in my head before I even met Emma and the fairy-tale became real for two years. Then Jonah was born and it was fluffy clouds and sleepless nights. But as he reached three, the fairy tale revealed itself an imposter – the red hood fell away to show the Big Bad Wolf of autism’.

So what’s it about?

Ben Jewell has hit breaking point.

His ten-year-old son, Jonah, has never spoken. So when Ben and Jonah are forced to move in with Ben’s elderly father, three generations of men – one who can’t talk; two who won’t – are thrown together.

As Ben battles single fatherhood, a string of well-meaning social workers and his own demons, he learns some difficult home truths.

Jonah, blissful in his ignorance, becomes the prism through which all the complicated strands of personal identity, family history and misunderstanding are finally untangled.

Sounds pretty serious, eh? And it is. It’s about as serious as you can get. This is no wishy-washy, ‘barely scratches the surface’ account of Autism. This is a warts and all view of Autism at its most severe. Jonah’s Autism leaves him silent but we soon learn that it also leaves other, far more tangible marks too: ‘One more for the album of cuts and bruises, smashed glasses, plates and picture frames.’ The writing can be hard-hitting and shocking. At times you want to put your hands over your eyes whilst simultaneously not being able to stop reading.

Despite scenes like the one above, as readers we are never in any doubt about the depth of Ben’s love for his son. You can’t help but like Ben. He’s so imperfect and human. This is no two-dimensional, flawless character with the patience of a saint. On the contrary, Jonah’s autism leaves Ben an alcoholic single dad, terrified of the future: ‘What’s going to happen when he’s older? When he’s too big for even me to handle. Will he kill someone? Maim them? What happens when I’m dead?’ What must it be like to live every day with that kind of fear?

He battles to not only get his son the help he needs (even when this goes against his own desires) but also to understand this condition and how it affects Jonah specifically. You soon realise that Autism for one is not the same as Autism for another but equally, Jonah’s Autism today is not his Autism of tomorrow: ‘The only thing predictable about Jonah is his unpredictability.’

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it is almost unbearably sad at times. I certainly got through a respectable amount of tissues whilst reading it but that didn’t stop me wanting to pick it up. In fact I couldn’t wait to. I read it in 24 hours (perhaps not the most Christmas-sy read I could have chosen, granted) but I HAD to know how it ended. The tears came from trying to imagine that absolute helplessness, the terror, the sheer and utter exhaustion but also in trying to imagine what it must be like to NOT be able to connect with your child, even on the most basic level: ‘So few moments feel like true connection with him, I almost grieve when each one ebbs away.’

Ben’s dad provides another lens through which to view the situation and Jonah more specifically. It works, and despite that part of the story also requiring some tissues, it also prevents the story from becoming too dark and introspective.

Perhaps the best way to describe this book is as a book of strong emotions. As well as tears and laughter I also admit to a healthy dose of hate for Jonah’s mum, Emma. I can’t explain why without spoilers so I’ll leave it at that. But if you have read it, it’d be nice to rant about that with you.

An absolutely stunning read, from a (unbelievable though it may sound) debut author. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. Highly, highly recommended.

‘This wonderful, exhausting, terrifying, vulnerable, beautiful son of mine.’

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