Date posted: 27th April 2017 / Book Reviews
I first came across Jem Lester when he did an event for our Reading Passport project. There was such buzz about Shtum, Lester’s debut novel that immediately I felt compelled to buy the book and I thoroughly recommend that you all do too.
Shtum tells the story of Jonah Jewell a ten year old boy who is severely autistic and unable to speak. The novel picks up when Jonah reaches a pivotal point of boyhood – the transition to secondary school; a monumental moment for all young boys but one which will have huge ramifications on Jonah’s life and the life of his mother and father, who are at an absolute breaking point. As Jonah grows older the demands of his condition are getting greater and they both know that he needs a specialist education – one that they know cannot be provided by the local authority’s recommended school.
This is a novel about the education system. It’s also about the justice system, it concerns morality and ethics and tackles these issues head on but for me, this book was so much more than a rage against autism (which Lester has first-hand experience of having a son who has the condition). It was a love song to a child who may not always hear it and it gave a voice to a character who could not speak. Yes, there are hard truths and shocking realisations contained within these pages, yes the book encourages you to consider how you would react and cope in the same situation with frankness and heart-breaking poignancy, but there is also a story here of how wonderful the little boy in this story is. Once you meet Jonah, it is nigh-on impossible not to fall in love with him.
Although the book is told largely from the perspective of Ben Jewell, the portrait of Jonah is strikingly clear from the outset. Here in these pages you will find a child who is pure and beautiful and complex and wonderful. He may not be able to talk but Jonah spoke loudly enough to me. He captured my attention and had it arrested until the closing pages. His joys were my joys, his sorrows mine too and to me that is a sign of exceptional writing.
Whilst dealing with the afore mentioned central plot arc, the novel also excellently and eloquently provides comment on human and specifically family communication more generally. Whilst Jonah cannot speak, Ben and his own father, Jonah’s beloved grandfather choose not to speak to each other. This choice creates a perfect tension that highlights the fact that if we have a voice we should use it. Secrets are kept and blame is appointed, all of which could have been avoided if the characters had just communicated. I felt very strongly that this was a driving concern in the novel. I felt Lester saying from the pages – talk to each other, tell your story because there are some who can’t.
Jonah is really is no danger of that. Lester’s sensitive telling of his story ensures that this is a character that will stay with you long after your turn the last page. The writing in the final Ben does something for Jonah that no one has thought to do before will remain some of the best writing I’ve read for a long time.
Comparisons have been drawn with titles such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and The Shock of the Fall and I see those allusions, hoever I think that Shtum is a novel that stands on its on its own – pure and beautiful and I will not keep shtum about it – everyone should read this glorious novel. I eagerly await what Jem Lester writes next.
Shtum was published in 2016 by Orion.