I received Shtum in exchange for an honest review.
I’ve seen a lot of reviews comparing Shtum to books such as The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time and The Shock Of The Fall. I haven’t read either of these (although they are both sitting on my shelf waiting to be read); this was the first book I’d read which really tackles the theme of autism; with relatively little knowledge, I was going into it fresh. And it was enlightening.
We meet our narrator, Ben Jewell, at a crossroads in his life. He and his wife Emma have just decided to fake a separation in order to further their autistic son Jonah’s case in an upcoming educational tribunal. He and Jonah move in with his curmudgeonly Jewish father, Georg. As the three generations of men learn to live together and discover what there is to love about each other, the reader is taken on an emotional rollercoaster with them.
This book is not one to read for escapism, but one to read to help you learn a little and perhaps – for me at least – realise just how lucky you are. The blurb only really alludes to autism but the author tackles plenty of hard-hitting issues alongside this, from alcoholism to cancer to WWII. This novel felt very real – gritty, authentic and British – which I love. It explores a family on the edge, and it’s tough to read at times.
But it’s beautiful too; the author weaves humourous moments amongst the heartache. Most of all this story is a big eye-opener on the topic of autism and how drastically it can alter not just the child with the condition but the parents’ lives. Jonah is ten years old, still in nappies and uncommunicative and through him we are given a glimpse into how simultaneously full of love and destruction a child with this condition can be. The struggle for understanding and communication was heartbreaking in places, as Ben tries to cling to any moment he has with his son; “So few moments feel like a true connection with him, I almost grieve when each one ebbs away.”
Despite the other issues covered, Jonah is at the heart of it all; whilst Ben is not a perfect person, his son provides him with the motivation and drive he needs to get through. Even though this child doesn’t talk, he teaches those around him much more than you’d ever expect, both about themselves and their environment. And I felt I learnt something too. A brilliant debut, highly recommended.