Shtum: Silent, non-communicative. That is what my dictionary tells me. Maybe you are keeping Shtum to keep a secret, maybe you don’t have the words or maybe you don’t have a voice. Shtum tells the story of three generations of men locked in silence for all these reasons.
First of all, we meet Ben Jewell: middle aged, lapsed North London Jew, alcoholic and father to Jonah. He is happily married to Emma who is a lawyer. Ben, we learn, works for his father’s catering hire company, so you need plates and cutlery for a party then Ben is the man go to. Jonah is ten, profoundly autistic and doesn’t speak. Not speaking is just the tip of the iceberg. He is also doubly incontinent, which means that, whilst most of us waved goodbye to the nappy bag and wipes after a couple of years, Ben and Emma are still on intimate terms with their son’s poo and pee.
Just like all parents of ten-year old children, they are tying themselves up in knots about which secondary school Jonah should attend. For most of us this boils down to catchment and curriculum but is still an emotional time. Ben and Emma favour a residential school and the local authority think that a local school is good enough; cue appeal. Ben and Jonah move in with his Dad, Georg, as Emma says that being a single parent will help the appeal. Georg war born in Hungary and fled to London as the shadow of Nazism fell over mainland Europe. Father and son have a strained relationship; they talk but don’t communicate.
That’s it, no more plot. Shtum might look as if it is about Autism but for me it is all about love. Love of a husband for a wife, love of a father for a son, love of a grandfather for a grandchild, love of a son for a father and love of friends. At times all of these loves are ignored or expressed in a way that makes them almost invisible. Sometimes I laughed out loud but mainly I wept whilst reading SHTUM, not in a bad way but do ensure that you have a ready supply of tissues before you embark on the book.
DISCLAIMER: I was sent a review copy via NetGalley in return for an honest review.
SHTUM by Jem Lester
Published by Orion Books
Paperback £7.99, Kindle £6.49