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.
I requested this book on NetGalley because I found the premise intriguing, and while I didn’t love this book as much as I thought I would, I found it enjoyable and think it will be a resounding success for Lester.
Shtum is a book about the relationship between fathers and sons – and their inability to communicate with one another. In the case of Ben and Jonah, they are literally unable to communicate because Jonah’s autism means he is unable to speak; Ben and Georg don’t seem to speak about anything of importance. While it was clear that Ben loved his son and would go to great lengths for him, I found the relationship between Georg and Jonah to be poignant and more touching. The level of patience and care that Georg displayed towards Jonah was heart-warming, and the stories he tells the uninterested Jonah (and his reasoning behind telling him) about his family will surprise you.
In all honesty, I found it difficult to connect to Ben. Lester hasn’t shied away from creating a flawed, complex character, and while it makes Shtum a more believable story, I’m not sure it make it a better story. It’s possible to forgive Ben for his faults, but he wasn’t exactly a character I enjoyed spending four hundred-odd pages with. Ben’s problems are understandable – it cannot be easy caring for a child with autism. Ben struggles with the competing demands of Jonah and the family business, so Georg is handed the responsibility of caring for Jonah and the family business is left in the hands of its only employee (besides Ben) while Ben heads to the pub. Ben resents Georg for not being more open with him, but isn’t open with Georg; he’s angry at his (absent) wife, Emma, for wanting out of their relationship. Ben seems intent on creating more problems for himself, to the point it becomes wearisome and you stop hoping he’ll win and start wondering when he’s going to stop sabotaging himself.
Where there was too much of Ben, there was perhaps not enough of the female characters. I’m fine with this being a book about men and their relationships with one another – I expected this from the premise going in. But the female characters were one-dimensional and flat; seemingly used as either pretty ornaments or excuses for Ben’s awful behaviour. Emma is depicted as selfish and cold-hearted for leaving Ben and Jonah (although does get a little redemption arc towards the end);Ben’s mother as an alcoholic who cared little for her husband and son. I probably would have had more sympathy for Ben over the breakdown of his marriage had I a bit more insight into the early days of their relationship, but all we saw was a self-absorbed alcoholic and a woman desperate to be a mother. Ben came across as selfish, hypocritical, rude and drunk (I guess the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree…), so I’m not sure why Jonah’s twenty-something teacher would flirt with Ben (or spend her personal time helping him care for Jonah), or why a blind date would show any interest in him.
Despite my complaints about Shtum, there is still much to love about it. Lester is able to make a novel touching with being overly-sentimental; he writes about serious subject matter while still being able to add a comedic touch when needed. This book ended on such a beautiful note that I finished it crying – and given that I spent a lot of the book being frustrated with Ben, I think it says a lot about Lester’s writing.
Please note: this review originally appeared on my blog, What Kim Read Next. It has been reformatted and edited.