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Shtum by Jem Lester
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Shtum

by Jem Lester

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Shtum is a stunning book that is likely to stay with the reader forever. It is hard to put into words how effectively Jem Lester draws on his personal life experience to explore the challenges a family faces when a child is profoundly autistic.. The relationship that Ben (the father and narrator of the story), Emma (the mother), and Georg (the grandfather) each have with Jonah and with one another are complex and heartwrenching. I found the following passage expressed by Ben to be particularly moving: "...just by looking me straight in the eyes, or inviting some physical contact, in a moment Jonah informed me of his true feeling without words and I believe him. Words become meaningless if you don't tell your truth and they become weapons if you try to tell someone else's theirs. Through his silence, Jonah allows me to listen to him--there is no wall of words to clamber over, no self-defence of the reality of him. I need to follow his example; silence will allow me to evade the internal clamor for regret and retribution..." I encourage everyone to read this book.... ( )
  Jcambridge | Sep 5, 2017 |
For many of us life already makes huge demands -- relationships, health and wellbeing, financial concerns, managing a work-life balance -- but when you have a dependent with severe autism those demands are compounded, and can bring one close to breaking point. However much love is given out. Jem Lester's Shtum is about a man in just such a position; but while it is drawn largely on the author's own experiences bringing up a son on the autistic spectrum it is nevertheless fiction. Still, autism runs as a major strand throughout. Shtum is also about how its manifestation here fits into a bigger picture involving individuals, institutions and collective responses.

Ben and Emma's son Jonah is the ten-year-old with a particularly debilitating form of the neurological and developmental disorder: he is non-verbal, incontinent, subject to rages and violent when frustrated, he exhibits self-stimulatory repetitive behaviours, tolerates a limited number of foods, suffers from sensory overload and is a danger to himself unless supervised. He has good support at his primary school but is about to transfer to secondary provision, and Shtum documents the difficulties surrounding that transition.

The first-person narrator is Ben Jewell, through whom we view everything in a blow-by-blow account, from reported speech and official letters to a handwritten document describing events in the 1930s and 40s.  Emma suggests that a temporary marital separation is a way of ensuring that Jonah is given more consideration, thus according him the full-time care he needs at an expensive specialist school, all to be funded by a cash-strapped local authority. On the periphery, but increasingly to the fore, are Ben's best friend Johnny and Ben's father George, along with Georg's old friend Maurice. Into this mix Ben's alcoholism, tobacco addiction, self-loathing and penchant for self-sabotage collectively threatens to be the charge leading to an almighty explosion. Were it not for his fierce love and concern for Jonah it'd be hard to feel much sympathy or liking for him as he blindly flails his way through a good half or more of the book.

'Shtum' is the Yiddish word for staying quiet, and clearly this refers to a number of issues explored in this novel. First and foremost we have Jonah who has severe problems around social communication and interaction, relying on the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) to indicate his wants when not otherwise going into meltdown. Then there is Ben himself who drowns his sorrows in preference to communicating clearly and rationally, even with himself. Emma too has secrets of her own which she shares with neither Ben nor work. The local authority aren't transparent when claiming their plans for Jonah are educationally sound when in fact it's all about financial costs. And finally, Ben's father Georg is shtum about his family history in Hungary as well as his own personal health, giving rise to huge anxieties and misunderstandings for his son.

I see many of the names, especially the Jewish ones, as significant in the story. Jonah's is the most obvious: famous for being thrown overboard, the Old Testament prophet shares with Jonah Jewell an association with water (baths in the case of the ten-year-old) and with feathers (Jonah means 'dove'). Georg of course had a David-and-Jonathan relationship with his own brother Jonatan back in Hungary before and during the war. And Benjamin Jewell, I'm sure, must feel so dissimilar to his namesake in the Bible, described as the favourite of his father and beloved by God, as Ben thinks Georg despises him and that his own life is somehow cursed -- though he is for the most part mistaken.

As I read this I was initially frustrated, but then ultimately uplifted by the final chapters of Shtum. While Jem Lester has put a lot of himself into the novel, the character of Ben Jewell is in no real sense the alter ego of the author. Not wanting to write a misery memoir he settled for a humorous fictional take on aspects of his experiences bringing up an autistic child. Unlike Ben, Jem doesn't come across as a potential loser -- among other things he was a journalist and, for nearly a decade, taught English and Media studies at secondary schools -- but the daily grind of routines with Jonah and the trials of preparing for a tribunal ring true for being based solidly on fact. Georg's back story in Hungary during the war will also have reflected what we know about Nazi attitudes to both Jews and the so-called feebleminded, and add revealing dimensions to the narrative.

In summary, I was impressed by Shtum, especially its humanising of those with severe autism. Though the Ben character exhibits some autistic traits himself -- unsurprising as autism has a genetic component -- the fact that he is able to show empathy for his son and speak so movingly for him is heartwarming. It's also a rejoinder to those harbouring misconceptions about autism, especially that those on the spectrum all have a 'special gift' like those few with savant syndrome. Jem Lester -- as he says in a Guardian interview -- also rails against a trend in which having autism has become "almost fashionable. There are celebrities who think it’s cool to say they’re a bit Aspergic..." Shtum is a perfect counterbalance for such confused thinking, but it's also well written and believable.

http://wp.me/s2oNj1-shtum ( )
2 vote ed.pendragon | Jul 22, 2017 |
Jonah, only son of Ben and Emma, has ASD at the severe end of the autistic spectrum. Jonah is silent, sometimes violent and has very complex needs. Ben and Emma embark on a turbulent journey into finding the perfect educational placement which will meet all of their beautiful boy's needs. This remarkable and very moving book tells the tale of not only that journey, but also the tale of Ben's self loathing and alcohol abuse; of Emma who chooses another path entirely; and of Georg - father to Ben and loving grandfather to Jonah. I didn't warm to Ben or Emma very easily - I thought them both selfish at first, but as the story progressed the rationale for their behaviour is made clear and I came to a better and more empathetic understanding of them.
It is a multi-faceted tale which has several surprising revelations sprinkled among its gorgeous pages. It had me both laughing aloud at the candid observations of human reactions and weeping real tears at both the desperate situation the characters were in and also at the very profound deeper message that I feel this book has.
Jonah - beautiful, twiddling Jonah; living life in his way, was not the only silent one. This book shows how we are all capable of "keeping Shtum" when really we should be better at speaking the truth.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. A truly magnificent 5 star rating from me!
Thank you to TBC, Netgalley and Jem Lester for allowing me to receive this as an ARC. ( )
  SF-W | Jan 16, 2016 |
I received Shtum as a review copy courtesy of Netgalley. I had heard it was a heartbreaking story of a family dealing with their severely autistic son. Soon after I started reading it though, I realized it was so much more than that. This story is about family and the hardships of all relationships. It’s also about the profound love of family, no matter what. Ben and Emma Jewell have had a horrible time dealing with their son Jonah’s autism for the past 10 years. It affects every bit of their lives, from their jobs and relationships to their own mental health. In order to get their son into a highly specialized school, they have to fake a separation, and Ben and Jonah move in with his father Georg. The three generations of Jewell men have their ups and downs, but there are laughs too mixed in with the tears.

I had a hard time connecting with Ben’s character. I wanted to shake him a few times, and Emma too. It wasn’t until he had his day in court and was able to explain his emotions that I was able to really understand him a little better. At the very end of the book, Georg’s personal story was so interesting to me, I felt myself really drawn into that part more than a lot of the book before. All in all, I was left with the feeling that life is constantly changing, whether we want it to or not, and sometimes we just need to learn to accept and adapt. ( )
  Mary.Endersbe | Dec 26, 2015 |
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Powerful, darkly funny and heart-breaking, Shtum is a story about fathers and sons, autism, and dysfunctional relationships.

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 Jonah move in with Georg, Ben's elderly father. In a small house in North London, three generations of men - one who can't talk; two who won't - are thrown together.

A powerful, emotional, but above all enjoyable read, perfect for fans of THE SHOCK OF THE FALL and THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME
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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 innocence, becomes the prism through which all the complicated strands of personal identity, family history and misunderstanding are finally untangled.… (more)

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