Shtum by Jem Lester

This is a book you are going to hear a lot about in 2016. In fact, even though it’s not published in hardback/ebook until April I’ve already been hearing about it for the past couple of months! So when I was given the chance to read a review copy, I couldn’t refuse. 

Shtum tells the story of ten year old Jonah’s family: his dad Ben, mum Emma and grandfather Georg. Jonah is severely autistic and this book is unusual in that it looks at a child who is not on the gifted side of the autistic spectrum but the side where developmentally he is still a toddler. Jonah does not speak, is doubly incontinent, has not made progress at school and can be violent. His parents want to get him into a residential school which is ideal for his complex needs. But the school is incredibly expensive and the local authority don’t want to pay. In an effort to increase their chances of winning a tribunal against the council, Ben and Emma fake a separation. Ben takes Jonah to live with his elderly and unwell father, a strain for everyone.

Shtum is very much a portrait of a family on the edge. It really opened my eyes to some of the challenges that parents of severely autistic children must face on a daily basis. The desperation that Jonah’s parents face is clearly portrayed but their love for their son also shines through. I really felt for Ben and Emma even though at times they came across as selfish. I’m not sure how I would cope in their situation. The relationship I liked best though was that between Ben and his father Georg. They have had a difficult relationship with Georg being the kind of father who finds it hard to express his emotions towards his son. He seems able to make a connection with Jonah more easily than his parents and is fiercely protective of him. With their enforced closeness living together, they do get to know each other better, though it is a very difficult time for Georg for several reasons. Towards the end of the book some secrets are revealed by many of the characters and Georg’s in particular were very moving.

Shtum is a sensitively told compelling story. It will enlighten you about the life of a family struggling to cope with a difficult situation as best they can. And it’s about all kinds of communication – communicating with someone who finds it hard, communication across the generations and also the effects not communicating can have. It’s a book that will no doubt create a lot of discussion and may help to raise awareness of a different face of autism. I’m sure it will be a great success when published.

My thanks to Sam Eades at Orion Publishers for this copy of Shtum provided through Netgalley. Shtum is due to be published in April 2016 and you can order a copy here: Shtum


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 innocence, becomes the prism through which all the complicated strands of personal identity, family history and misunderstanding are finally untangled.


5 thoughts on “Shtum by Jem Lester

    1. Would be a good one to discuss but still a bit pricey to pre-order and paperback not out till 2017. Will watch out for a Kindle deal.


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