Genre: Literary Fiction
For fans of: Graeme Simsion, Mark Haddon
If you haven’t heard of this whirlwind of a book, where have you been? For the last few months I’ve watched SHTUM take the Twittersphere (and Goodreads) by storm and as far as I’m concerned it’s worth every single nugget of praise it’s received. This charming yet truthful glimpse into the highs and lows of bringing up a child suffering from autism firmly puts other autism novels I’ve read into place with its touchingly realistic portrayal of the condition.
It is in these moments that I feel most certain that he loves me back, that every word, like Dad said, is a little lie built for a purpose with an agenda and that the physical, sensory world that Jonah inhabits is the purest form of truth there is.
Jem Lester’s SHTUM is narrated by Ben Jewell – father to ten year old sufferer of severe autism Jonah. Struggling to cope with the pressures of ensuring Jonah has a good quality of life and enough money to support him, Ben and his wife decide to take drastic action. To help their case in an upcoming tribunal deciding where Jonah will be educated, Emma and Ben fake a separation forcing the latter to move in with Georg, his elderly father. Sandwiched between a father who won’t talk to him and a son who can’t, Ben has to find a way to battle his own demons and Jonah’s well-meaning social workers to bring the Jewell’s back together.
Never has a novel made me laugh and cry so much within one sitting – much in the same vein as Ben’s experiences I suspect! Endowed with a hilarious, acerbic sense of wit and an absorbing narrative voice, Ben Jewell makes for an amusing, fleshed out protagonist who you’ll helplessly root for in spite of his flaws. His compassion and admiration for his son are really endearing while his juxtaposing trying relationship with his father makes for a constant source of humour. I think I attracted quite a few odd looks giggling to myself while reading this novel.
[…] as he does so, he is no longer a baby – not quite an adolescent and he will never, I understand again, as my wounds begin to sting once more, be a man.
What makes SHTUM so different from the other autism fiction I’ve read is how much closer to resembling real life Lester’s depiction of autism is. He isn’t afraid to leave in the gritty details of the condition; there are some difficult scenes in which Jonah physically harms himself or his parents and a rather unpleasant moment involving napkins in a cafe. Yet at the same time he manages to highlight the beauty in Jonah’s way of interacting with life and there’s a good peppering of comic moments arising from Jonah’s (or more often his father’s) misunderstandings. In fact Jonah is arguably one of the happiest characters in the entire book while at the same time managing to bring a little light into the lives of those around him.
SHTUM is also a brilliant examination of language and the various forms that “communication” can take. Ben experiences many moments of clarity in which he realises that his son’s silent form of communication is perhaps the most truthful of all. This seems to be confirmed when Georg only really opens up to him after losing his speech. There’s also the many formats Lester employs to tell his story – each chapter is preceded by a PECS card and the narrative is divvied up into emails, letters to the education authorities and even hospital appointment cards at times, proving that sometimes mere words can’t provide the whole picture.
If nothing else, I have come to this moment of clarity: I fear words more than anything. I can find whatever meaning in them I wish, twist them for my own purposes, beat myself up with them, use them as an excuse to drink, to rage against the world, to withdraw from the world.
Uplifting, heartbreaking and life-affirming all at the same time, this remarkable novel is a must-read. You can’t help but be charmed by Ben and Jonah’s relationship and it’s a testament to Jem Lester’s writing that he can so easily weave together a story that is equal parts funny and heart-rending. You simply have to read it.
If you want to feed your SHTUM addiction further check back on Friday for my stop on the blog tour! In the mean time follow #SHTUM on Twitter to check out the rest of the tour so far.
Disclaimer: This book was kindly sent to me to review by Orion Books. All opinions expressed here are my own.