The line from The Observer describing this book as: “A darker, sadder version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, but just as moving” drew me in but I never expected Jem Lester’s debut book to be so utterly thought-provoking. Most novels I’ve read relating autism focused on the ‘higher’ end of the spectrum, whose characters have enjoyed some positive traits, indeed amusing ones. Jonah, the child in this novel has no such redeeming feature, so it is extremely difficult to even try to enter his world, let alone empathise with or understand him. Jonah feels too complex, too buried in his own world, to deal with. He is non-verbal, he is incontinent, he is extremely limited in how he communicates with others, which wreaks havoc with the lives of his parents. That said, they have their own issues. Mum, Emma, can no longer cope, but that is predominantly with her partner, Ben, whose alcoholism not only loses him his job but makes him unbearable to live with.
The parents feel love, guilt, exhaustion, anger, and self-pity, as Jonah fixates on things he likes: marmite toast, bubble baths, and feathers. They are responsible for this boy who can never call them Mum or Dad, who can never truly relate to them at a level parents are led to expect. There is an immense sense of loss, and of grieving for this loss, and of guilt: who is to blame for jonah’s condition? The book largely follows the battle to get Jonah into an appropriate but very expensive residential school. It is not the fight of David v Goliath in a triumphal sense, but it is a fight, an expensive and time-consuming one, in a finance-led society. As the marriage fails, Ben and Jonah are asked to move out early in the book by Emma who appears to be a disinterested, unsympathetic mother. Her character, however, later develops. Meanwhile, they move in with Georg, Ben’s father, a Hungarian holocaust survivor. He above all others seems to have a calm and loving acceptance of Jonah but is very keen to keep the boy at home rather than sending him to a residential school, despite the daily difficulties.
The book didn’t move me to tears, but for anyone with a profoundly autistic child, it might well do so. The plot, like the characters within, unravels beautifully, with an ending which ties everything together coherently. Shtum is a great title. The Yiddish word for keeping silent or hiding secrets, the book is exactly about that at so many levels. The author has two children, one of whom is profoundly autistic. The authenticity of experience seems to really shine through in this stunning first novel. The bureaucracy and tribunal are described as an accurate reflection, according to Lester (whose son is also called Jonah) in a Guardian interview. It also picks up on the unusual ‘three generations of men’ theme. Social realism is full of inter-generational tales of women, but men have been largely ignored, or portrayed indifferently, so at this level alone, it is fascinating.
I’d say read it. If you’re into books about human frailties and inter-relationships then this is full of them. It is warm, funny and yet, also extremely sad in parts. I read it in two days which for over 300 pages, is pretty good for me! It was, indeed, compelling.