Shtum is the story of the father of a severely autistic child. Written by Jem Lester, it follows Ben Jewell as he fights for his son Jonah’s right to go to a school that suits his needs.
I can understand why this has been compared to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, which I desperately need to re-read. (I read it in school, but I don’t remember even casually mentioning autism or spectrum conditions. I think I would get a lot more out of it now.) Shtum is a lot more focused on the realities of autism – it doesn’t shy away from descriptions of nappy-changing a 10 year-old for example, and nor should it, I think. This is also obviously because this is from a father’s point-of-view, which I found interesting. Ben is by no means an ideal father – Shtum talks very frankly about the ways in which he feels he has failed his son, and is trying to make amends.
I had wondered why the book was entitled ‘Shtum’ – I assumed this was because Jonah wasn’t able to talk. This turned out to be true, but this is only the surface reason why the title fits so well. Areas of communication and non-communication are essential as relationships between generations and spouses break down, and are slowly built back up again as Ben attempts to figure out who he is supposed to be, and how he is to best help his son. The silences within the novel are beautifully nuanced – it is practically an ode to those particular human experiences that cannot be expressed in words.
‘Shtum’ holds nothing back. Violence, cancer and divorce stalk Ben Jewell as he attempts to do his best to secure Jonah’s future. Saying that, I didn’t find this a particularly depressing novel – rather, it discusses all of these with a humorously dry voice. Shit happens. Let’s go.