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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The Shut Eye by Belinda Bauer

The Shut Eye

OK, so I am utterly at a loss to understand why I’ve waited so long to read Belinda Bauer. This is her latest novel and, I’m now ashamed to admit, the first I’ve read. I will be rectifying this almost immediately; I’ve just bought Rubbernecker and have added her complete backlist to my wishlist. Thank you so much to the publisher for providing me with a copy of The Shut Eye in exchange for a review – I’ve found a new favourite author as a result.

What the blurb says:

Five footprints are the only sign that Daniel Buck was ever here.

And now they are all his mother has left.

Every day, Anna Buck guards the little prints in the cement. Polishing them to a shine. Keeping them safe. Spiralling towards insanity.

When a psychic offers hope, Anna grasps it. Who wouldn’t? Maybe he can tell her what happened to her son…
But is this man what he claims to be? Is he a visionary? A shut eye? Or a cruel fake, preying on the vulnerable?

Or is he something far, far worse?

Yep. My heart thumped a little bit harder just reading the blurb again! I finished this novel some time ago now, but Anna’s story has stayed with me. I could feel her pain so acutely that I literally raced through the book, reading it in 24 hours flat. I just HAD to know what had happened to little Daniel. Was the story more powerful as I am a mother reading it? Maybe. But it is also without doubt one of the most intricately plotted novels I’ve read this year.

‘One hundred and twenty days ago, the door had been left open…’

How many parents pay to have their children’s footprints or handprints immortalised in plaster in one way or another? Most of us have done it. Perhaps that’s why the image of Daniel’s footprints in the cement is so poignant from the word go: ‘Five footprints in the cement. Five little footprints leading away from the sooty houses to who-knew-where…’ It’s a parent’s worst nightmare. You can’t help but walk in Anna’s shoes from the very start and of course, it’s an uncomfortable walk: ‘She knew she was going mad, but she didn’t know how to stop it any more than she knew how to stop crying or breathing’. As the reader, your heart breaks with her: ‘If [she] was crazy, she was crazy for all her own reasons. And they were reasons that were wholly understandable and unbearably sad’.

In contrast, I just loved the light relief (ironic in a policeman) provided by the character of DCI John Marvel. What a great name, and what a breath of fresh air as far as fictional detectives go: ‘The longer [he] worked in homicide, the more he disliked people. He’d never met one he didn’t hate – or despise… Along with fresh air and roughage, Marvel thought that children were overrated’. Having said which, nobody could possibly work harder to solve neither the Daniel Buck case nor that of Edie Evans – the other missing child case he’s working on when we meet him.

As well as the heartache surrounding the lost children, the reader watches as Anna and her husband James cling to the remains of their marriage: ‘With every beer he could do a better impression of a young man whose wife still loved him, and who hadn’t lost his son’. Because, unforgivably as far as either of them are concerned, it was James that left the front door open on that fateful day, four months previously.

Anna’s grief manifests itself in obsessive behaviour, which serves to worry her husband even more: ‘[She] could hear germs breeding on counter tops and under sofa cushions. They filled her mouth when she yawned and gritted her lids when she blinked…When Daniel came home, he would be so safe. Nothing would ever harm him again’. In light of later events (which I won’t go into here – this review is spoiler free), this obsessive behaviour only serves to discredit her further: ‘They all stood and watched her, stunned by the depth of her madness’.

No matter how tragic this story is in so many different ways, as the reader you are never left without hope and it is this hope that is addictive. It keeps you reading – in my case, in an obsessive manner reminiscent of Anna Buck herself. Interspersed with the more tragic elements of the story we also meet a whole host of other colourful characters from the is-he/isn’t-he Psychic, Richard Latham to Mitzi the poodle, to James’ work mates from the garage near his home.

There are so many seemingly inconsequential threads to this story – you only realise how they all weave together at the very end. Belinda Bauer is so incredibly clever – this novel completely captured me from the start and wouldn’t let go. It’s undoubtedly one of my top reads of 2015 so far and I urge you to buy it, read it and see what all the fuss is about for yourself.

‘Thinking about him keeps him alive for me… gives me hope, and hope keeps me alive for him’.

The Shut Eye was published on 12th March and is available in hardcover: The Shut Eye

Or kindle: The Shut Eye

From the Heart #7 – Who am I?

who am i

Clearly you can’t spend more than a minute reading my blog without realising I love books and you can probably guess from the mere fact that I have a blog that I’m quite fond of writing too, but what else makes me tick? This is as much an exercise in self-reflection for me as it is to satisfy my blog-readers curiosity.

Below are my passions, my pet hates and other trivia.

1) I love chocolate but I’m pretty good at not eating it. Mainly because I NEVER buy it. But if it’s in the house, it has to be hidden from me or it will be devoured in one (very short) sitting. Which reminds me hubby, that bar of green and blacks you hid? I found it when you were out tonight. And it’s gone. It took about ten minutes.

Chocolate from the fridge is the pinnacle of chocolate enjoyment and milk is always preferable to white or dark – the plainer the better. Rather helpfully for my waistline I don’t like sweets of any description so I can buy treats for the rest of the family without putting temptation in my own way, but Easter is a nightmare…

2) I am quite happy with my own company and I need at least a little bit of ‘me time’ every day or I will be super grumpy. I’m a very solitary person who spends a lot of time living in my head; I need stretches of peace to re-charge and to be able to cope with the much longer stretches of mayhem that having kids and a normal life entails. Other people tend to find that quite odd and I know I can come across as sort of snooty to strangers. It’s not my intention. I’m just in my head and not quite in the real world. My husband can see super-grumpy periods approaching and sends me out – usually to a Bookshop.

3) I never watch TV. My brain is never quiet – this ties in with the point above. My husband commented once that it must be exhausting being me, just because my brain never stops. He’s right – at times. So to unwind I need something that completely immerses me. TV never accomplishes it – films only occasionally. I find my thoughts straying to what I need to do later / in the morning / next week. Books accomplish it, which is why I nearly always choose them but they aren’t a very social pastime, particularly as I need silence to read. In general, I really don’t like noise.

4) Again related to the point above, I am seriously organized. I only know one person who takes organization to the same sort of ridiculous, even anal level that I do (yes Ciara, that’d be you). This is not a new phenomenon; I was named ‘Most Organised’ in my 6th Form Year Book. It’s only got worse since then with more people to organize… The thought of losing my diary (now on my iPhone) makes me sweat.

5) I love sleep. I always have. I remember my teenage years vividly with my parents having to almost drag me out of bed in the mornings and me repeatedly begging for ‘just another five minutes’. I wondered in my twenties when I’d start not wanting to sleep so much but the deep desire to stay cocooned in my duvet has never really gone. I love my bedroom and I love my bed – it’s my space; it makes me feel safe, comforted and relaxed. It’s only since having children that I have swapped my ‘night owl’ status for that of a ‘morning person’ and it’s only in the last few years that I’ve struggled to ‘sleep in’. Staying in bed is not a problem, but actually sleeping is not so easy any more.

If I don’t get enough sleep I suffer the next day and as I’m quite disciplined that doesn’t happen too often. I know I need 7 hours – my GP tells me that is the absolute minimum I should be getting. If I have less, the afternoon drags, I yawn a lot and find concentrating hard. It’s not worth it. When I’m working, I’m asleep by 11pm (usually earlier) and awake at 6am. At the moment I’m asleep by midnight and awake at 7am.

6) Oddly, I HATE the snooze button. In fact, just thinking about it is making me mad. Although I love sleep, once I’m awake I’m awake and once I know it’s time to get up, I get up straight away. You wake up soooo much quicker if you get moving immediately, believe me. Once that alarm goes off, I’m awake, so what’s the point in lying there for another 10 minutes? It’s only delaying the inevitable. I’d much rather set my alarm for 10 minutes later and actually sleep it!

I fall asleep easily at night (although this hasn’t always been the case), and usually listening to an audiobook. I normally only manage to listen to about 5 minutes a night so Game of Thrones has lasted me months and I’m still only on chapter 20! If I wake in the night though, I struggle to go back to sleep because my brain kicks in – meditation music helps – I like sea sounds. Hubby knows this, and as he can go back to sleep in about 20 seconds, he generally gets up in the night if one of the girls wakes – he is awesome like that.

7) Which brings me nicely on to the fact that I have immense love and respect for my husband. I realise that it can’t be easy living with such a solitary individual as me. Especially when you yourself are rather the opposite and thrive on interaction with others. Whereas I could happily be silent all day, for hubby that would be the equivalent of a living hell.

We have been together 15 years and married for 12 in September – we have grown and changed in that time and had our up’s and down’s – far more of the up’s though and we have always been an awesome team. In a lot of ways we are opposites but we recognize and admire in each other those traits that we don’t have. He knows me better than anyone, is a fantastic father, supports me (even when he doesn’t understand why I need it), laughs and cries with me. He is mine and we are meant to be.

8) I love coffee. Possibly related to loving sleep. Odd though considering I was a tea drinker through and through until I had my first daughter. Since then it has been coffee all the way and I adore my morning caffeine injection which is nearly always drunk in the bath. It has to be a big mug, hot, milky and with three sweeteners.

9) My favourite colour has always been purple but now I’m writing this and thinking about it more deeply I think red has overtaken it. I love my red heels and miss having an opportunity to wear them.

10) I love shoes and heels in particular, only slightly less than books. I have heels in just about every colour and would NEVER go to work in flats. I also nearly always wear skirts or dresses to work, and yet only wear trousers at home.

11) I’m a serial dieter and have been since my mid-teens. It’s only in the last 10 years that I’ve finally got to know my body well enough to be able to pretty much stay in control of my weight. In 2003 I was the heaviest I have ever been. Thanks to Weight Watchers I lost just over 2 stone by September of that year but through having two children in 2007 and 2010 my weight crept up again by a stone. According to the charts I was still at the top end of ‘healthy’ but I wasn’t happy and I finally lost it this year, putting me within a few pounds of my 2003 weight.

I know what I can get away with and what I can’t these days. I know I can eat protein and some carbs and be OK, but sugar will go straight to my belly. I know if I’m going to gain now and make a conscious decision whether to eat that particular meal, cake, pudding or chocolate. If I do, I will be careful until I lose it again. I hate exercise so I have to be super disciplined about what goes in my mouth (or not). I plan my meals a week in advance which helps.

12) I hate being late. And I hate others being late too. If you arrange to be somewhere, get there on time – which in my book means plan to be there early because you have to factor in the unexpected. Being late is discourteous and rude.

13) I love cats. I have three pedigree Burmese who, until I had children, were my babies. They are still my babies, just a bit differently now and are 13, 11 and 9.

14) I am tee-total and have been for over four years.

15) I have suffered from depression many times in the past but haven’t had a bout since my girls were born, which I suppose is actually quite amazing when you think about it. I don’t fear it anymore. If it happens again, and I have no doubt that it will, so be it. I will hopefully at least recognise it and be able to do something about it. Interestingly, my writing tends to feature depressed characters or depression as a theme despite it not being a part of my recent life.

16) I don’t make friends easily but have an amazing knack for losing them without understanding why. The friends I do have are incredibly special, are understanding and tolerant of my solitary, rather anti-social nature and don’t misinterpret my behaviour. They are amazing and along with my family, are all I need.