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SHTUM by Jem Lester

By 22:00:00

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.

✱ Pages: 368 (paperback)
✱ Publication date: 7 April 2016 (Orion)
✱ Provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

Seeing the cover was part of my decision to pick this up. Then I thought about the title, read the synopsis, and figured this might be a really emotionally honest story. And I like that - even though it kind of makes me cry, usually.

Important Themes

There's probably something here for every reader to identify or at least empathise with: autism, alcoholism, dysfunctional families, trying to do what's best for our children. Topics like cancer and WWII are brought up too. Difficult topics, but approached with an honesty in story-telling that I found simultaneously refreshing and upsetting.

It's not a surprise that SHTUM gets a bit heavy. It's emotional. It takes an honest look at things, and that can be emotionally exhausting for the reader. But with the darkness come some brighter moments too, and those make life worthwhile, right?


In SHTUM it falls on Ben to make some difficult decisions, and to find a way to make Jonah's life better. This is what drives the story. But of course Ben's opinion isn't the only one that's taken into account. There are also social services and other official bodies that have a say, which makes life pretty tricky for this family. 

Because of this, interspersed between chapters are letters, a court procession, and at one point flashbacks. It's an interesting way of telling the story. We don't often get to see the characters' immediate reaction to a letter from the social services, for example, but we do always see its effects in the long run. I thought the addition of letters sent to Ben, Emma, and Georg was a good move. It kind of amps up the tension a bit - just seeing a letter from the social services in the pages of a book makes me nervous, apparently!

The Characters

I found the protagonist, Ben, difficult to understand sometimes, but knowing he was at least trying his best for Jonah was his redeeming quality. Ben's wife Emma was difficult to understand too, because we mainly see what Ben sees - or decides to see. It's interesting how one conversation later on in the story can thoroughly change your perception of a character.

Ten-year-old Jonah is obviously a character very central to the story. He gets upset if he doesn't get what he wants, or if his daily ritual changes - but he doesn't speak: he can't communicate. On the other hand, the smallest things can make him happy - and his joy is wonderful, unburdened by all the worries the rest of us carry around.

Probably my favourite character was Ben's elderly father, Georg. Georg, who had grown up, lost his family to WWII, and moved to England. Georg, who refused to tell Ben about his past, not wanting to burden his child with it. Georg, who starts telling his story to his Grandson, Jonah. Really, just the way he keeps chatting to Jonah, and how proud he is of his grandson is just wonderful.

Not the easiest book to read because of the very emotive themes, but a solid work of literary fiction. A lot of feels, you guys. A lot of feels.
Difficult topics in literature - are they your bag or not? Which book makes you cry the most? (I'd probably say All the Bright Places. That book reduced me to a human-shaped puddle of misery, laying on the floor, staring at the ceiling. You know.)

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