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 ignorance, becomes the prism through which all the complicated strands of personal identity, family history and misunderstanding are finally untangled.
Funny and heart-breaking in equal measure, Shtum is a story about families, forgiveness and finding a light in the darkest days.
I was pleased to receive a review copy of Shtum a few months ago as there had been a lot of hype around the book and I was really keen to see what it was all about. I have to be honest and admit that for the first few chapters of this book I really wasn’t sure whether I wanted to keep reading, it just wasn’t holding my attention at all. I’m glad that I persevered though because once I reached the halfway point I did find this book a lot more engrossing.
I don’t really feel qualified to talk about the representation of autism in this book because it’s not something that I have any direct experience of, however I do have friends who have children that are autistic but are affected to a much lesser degree than Jonah, and I also have a family member who is profoundly mentally and physically disabled, albeit not from autism, so I do have a little understanding. Jonah was a great character to read about, it’s not often that autism, or any profound disability, is portrayed in novels so I commend the author for writing this book.
Throughout the novel I wanted to feel sorry for Ben and Emma at the situation they were in with their son but they weren’t particularly likeable characters, which made it harder to care. For most of the book Ben was so self-pitying that it was very hard to even tolerate him, and I didn’t feel that I ever got to know enough about Emma to form much of an opinion. I can imagine that having a profoundly disabled child would be a strain on most, if not all, relationships so the breakdown between Emma and Ben was understandable. It was very strange how Emma went about the break up but then perhaps it was done in this way to highlight just how impossible it was for her to deal with Ben anymore, given how wrapped up he was in his own thoughts and feelings.
The biggest issue that I had with this book is the way certain issues were written about; it wasn’t so much the obsession with bodily functions but the way they were written about. So many of these particular paragraphs should have elicited sympathy for the characters going through it, and the person who has to deal with it, but the way it was written made me really quite angry. It felt like these characters, who did not have control over their own bodies anymore, were being treated with absolute contempt by the person who should have loved and cared for them the most. I know how difficult it is to be a carer and I know how difficult it is to have to be responsible for another person’s bodily functions and yet it did not bring out any empathy in me, and I feel like it really should have done. So much of it just left me cold. Perhaps this is what the author intended but it made me want to stop reading rather than making me want to understand Ben’s point of view.
On a much more positive note, I adored the relationship between Jonah and his grandfather, Georg. There were some wonderful and tender moments between them that did melt my heart, it was quite clear that they had a strong bond and that they really understood each other. It was this relationship that kept me reading the book.
This novel is very focused on what it is like to have an autistic child but actually at its heart it is much more about people’s inability to communicate. Emma couldn’t even directly tell her husband that she was leaving him; Georg and Ben had never had a conversation about what it was like for Georg growing up, and Ben only found out snippets when he was listening in to conversations that Georg was having with Jonah. There was also Ben’s problems with alcohol, which was masking the issues he had facing up to Jonah’s problems. So it became apparent to me that Jonah’s inability to speak was actually representative of the entire family’s inability to communicate with each other, they were all stifled and closed off and actually although Jonah couldn’t speak he was probably the most expressive of all the characters in this book; he may not always have expressed himself in a way that society would deem appropriate but he did always make himself heard when he needed or wanted something, and that is more than can be said for the other main characters in this book, and for me, this was the most interesting part of this story. The idea that the boy who could not speak actually expressed himself more than those that could speak is incredibly powerful and is a lesson to us all about how we need to learn to communicate better and, more importantly, that we must learn to pay attention to people and to not always focus on the words people use but to really see what they’re communicating to us.
I struggled with rating this book because it wasn’t really a book that I could say I enjoyed as such but it did become a book that I found interesting and it did give me a lot to think about when I’d finished it. I think overall I am going to rate this book 3.5 out of 5.
I received this book from the Orion via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.
Shtum is out now and available from all good bookshops.