Review: Shtum

Love in the face of silence


By Jem Lester
Orion, £13.99

"Silence," wrote Euripides, "is true wisdom's best reply." But the best lies buried deep in Jem Lester's debut novel - about a boy, the profoundly autistic Jonah aged 10, and his flawed, beleaguered father, Ben Jewell .

The book's title is a description of Jonah, an only child, in whom Jewish parental great expectations were vested until it emerged that he would never speak, never mind chant his barmitzvah portion, or don a graduation gown.

Prepare for an unsweetened heart-shredder of a novel, as raw as it is real. It is a cautionary tale of our crazed times in which parents, already stretched beyond bearing, must battle with bureaucracy for their child's right to thrive. Shtum packs the power of authenticity, but is also beautifully written and tinged with humour like the bite of dark chocolate.

Authenticity stems from experience: Jem Lester is himself the father of an autistic boy, a son he finds "joyously hilarious" and easy to love. Not so the boy of his book who is far removed from the charmed end of the autism spectrum. No young idiot savant of maths or exquisite art, Jonah is "an incongruous lump in his Bob the Builder pyjamas", a big kid still in nappies, locked in his own impenetrable mind and wildly unpredictable behaviour.

Jonah is an incongruous lump in his Bob the Builder pyjamas

Disturbed, Jonah will bite his own hand or others', scream, create broken-plate havoc in his home and way beyond. Marmite toast soothes him, along with bubble baths and feathers to shred. This vulnerable child will "never play autism for England."

The core issue of this novel is whether Jonah can at least fulfil his potential, in a state of-the-art boarding environment that will set the local authority back an eye-watering £200,000 a year.

The authority insists upon cheaper, insufficient care options, outlined in increasingly callous correspondence. So the Jewells must press on to tribunal, passionately arguing the case for a special child with high needs and no voice.

This involves painstaking paperwork, astronomical legal fees and self-sacrifice that does not come easy. Stress, and the inability to admit their pain to each other, has already crashed the couple's marriage.

Ben's wife Emma, a dynamic lawyer, contends their case will have more chance if Ben presents as a sorry single father. So they should separate, she suggests - at least for a while.

It transpires, however, that Emma has had enough, not only of maternal trials, but also of Ben's inability to step up to full manly responsibilities. He drinks heavily, shrinks from Emma's wish to try for a second, hopefully healthy child, and sabotages his business - loaning out catering equipment -– under mountains of unwashed china.

Father and son are obliged to move in with poker-playing Grandpa Georg, a Hungarian-born Trotskyite with whom Ben has a barbed, unsatisfactory relationship.

Far too much has always passed unsaid between them. A mournful ending seems in prospect, but Lester gives wisdom the last, upbeat word, revealing just cause for long-held silence, and the ultimate disclosure to set more than one son free.

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