‘Shtum’ means silent, non communicative. It is also Jonah’s most obvious trait.
Jonah, the book’s little protagonist is autistic, but not in the Rainman kind of way. He loves Marmite and lashes out when he can’t have it. He loves bubble baths and running around in the backyard naked. He is unpredictable and unable to properly communicate with those around him.
Shtum by Jem Lester follows the life of Jonah and his family – his father Ben, grandfather Georg and mother Emma. In this honest, heartbreaking, and sometimes funny tale, readers see the failings and triumphs of the adults who are closest to Jonah.
By no means are their lives okay, or anywhere near okay. Georg loves his son at a distance, unable to share their family’s real history from before the time of the Holocaust. But every night, when he puts his grandson to bed, Georg shares with Jonah what he can’t share with his own son, Ben.
Ben, on the other hand, hates working in his father’s catering supply business. But he doesn’t have a choice. It’s the only job he can hold down while battling with his alcoholism, his crumbling marriage to Emma, Jonah’s mother, and the demands of caring for his son. He has no choice but to live with his father as part of a scheme he agreed to do with Emma. A successful lawyer with her own secrets, she is now living on her own in their old house. The logic is that there is a higher chance of getting funding from the local government for Jonah’s special education if they appeared to be separated.
Opting to stay away for reasons that are not revealed until later in the book, it is easy to hate Emma; to brand her as the unsympathetic mother who abandoned her son. But in the end, her secrets are revealed, offering the reader a better understanding of her actions.
All three adults are fighting for Jonah to get into a fantastic, but very expensive, school for autistic kids. Because, as Ben says, what happens when he’s too old to care for Jonah? Or when they die and leave Jonah on his own? All three adults are looking out for Jonah’s future while struggling with their own issues at the same time.
Shtum makes you feel a lot of things: frustration towards the characters for not talking to each other.; anger at the bureaucracy that surrounds families with autistic kids; hope that maybe there is light at the end of the very long, and very dark tunnel.
But mostly frustration.
Had the three characters talked – really communicated with each other – a lot of the problems would have been resolved quicker. But then again, the book is titled Shtum – and although it refers to Jonah most of the time, the rest of the characters are just as ‘shtum’ with each other.
Overall, Shtum is a gut wrenching eye opener to the world of families dealing with autism. Lester writes with authenticity and a lot of heart. The book doesn’t preach. It doesn’t make you feel bad that you have ‘neuro-typical’ kids. It simply says ‘this is my life’ and Shtum says it so beautifully.
Kristyn M. Levis is a freelance writer, author and photographer based in Sydney. She is currently the managing editor of Her Collective. Her first novel, The Girl Between Two Worlds, was published in 2016. Book two is set for release next year.