ONE TO WATCH OUT FOR: Shtum by Jem Lester

Review published on November 16, 2015.

I’m not sure it qualifies as a new genre but The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time certainly heralded a completely new strand of story telling when it came out in 2003. Christopher Boone was a 15-year-old boy who described himself as “a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties”. Although Christopher’s condition is not stated, the book’s blurb refers to Asperger syndrome, high-functioning autism, or savant syndrome, something author Mark Haddon had to qualify later – “it’s a novel about difference, about being an outsider” adding that in no way was he an expert.

Fast forward through the next 10 years or so and – amongst others – you have probably been aware of, and even read, The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher, When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan. All exploring this issue of difference in its various forms.

Some have been published as YA titles, others as cross-overs because they have been about young people. And adults have enjoyed them, too – indeed, we have been proud to have had three of the above as Recommended Reads in nb magazine.

Now along comes Jonah who says nothing in Shtum and yet is at the centre of everything. Severe autism means that, after an initial breakthrough, Jonah, now 10 years old, has slipped back into a wordless existence. His father, Ben, is left to recount events in which every parent of disabled children will hear resonances and every parent of fully able children will be gratefully thinking ‘there but for the grace of God . . .’

On the one hand, Ben is a caring – if frazzled – parent who tries his best to engage with his son, and on the other he is a damaged individual whose marriage to Emma is showing signs of strain. Add in one more ingredient: Ben and his father are Jewish, bringing a welcome element of mordant humour to proceedings because these two have a habit of not communicating. Which is exacerbated because Ben now runs the family business and circumstances throw them together in the same house.

While I’m sure that interested teen readers could read and enjoy this ambitious book, there is much to be unravelled. Not least is Ben’s nihilistic attitude to life, finding consolation at the bottom of a glass. The roots of the alcohol problem go quite a long way back and aren’t clearly explained but they certainly pre-date Jonah’s arrival. Like Curious, the book is littered with visual evidence, mainly the correspondence with the local authority which is trying to save money by not placing Jonah at the best possible – and highly expensive – specialist secondary school which Ben and Emma think he deserves.

Ben’s all too human failings sometimes make him difficult to like – for heaven’s sake, man, don’t slope off to the pub again – but his commitment to Jonah is perfectly delivered; the highs and the – very – lows.

As if this weren’t enough there is a twist in the tale as family history is revealed and, to some extent, tidied up.

Mark Haddon may not have claimed to be an expert but Jem Lester has two children, one of whom is profoundly autistic so presumably is telling things like they really are.

The four books I mentioned up front all grabbed the attention of reading groups across the UK and beyond. Shtum is definitely worthy company and, if anything, almost has too many ‘issues’ to discuss – but then, when did your reading group last run out of things to say?

Highly recommended.

Guy Pringle, November 2015

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