Reviews from Lord Taylor of Glencoe
Shtum: Jem Lester, June 24—30, 2016
My rating: ♦♦♦◊◊
Ben Jewell narrates Shtum. He is the father of a severely autistic son, Jonah, who is mute and doubly incontinent. Ben and his wife, Emma, launch a tribunal appealing the Local Authority’s decision not to send Jonah to the specialist school of their choice, and Emma sends Ben and Jonah to live with Ben’s father, telling him single fathers are generally more successful in appeal.
Though Lester has an autistic child of his own, he does not deal with the subject matter well. Despite many studies and consistent advice that disabled characters in books shouldn’t be mere plot devices to educate the rest of the cast, or poor souls who just experience the events of the plot, in Shtum that’s exactly how it is. In his attempts to be “gritty” or “real”, Lester reverts to casting Jonah as a punishment, a burden and a problem that needs to be solved.
Much more interesting is the dynamic between Ben and his father; a relationship that has been strained and (hints at) estranged for many years. Living together suddenly, they must confront their attitudes to parenting, family and life. The willingness of Ben’s father to bond with Ben’s son, cutting him out, is tensely written and the step forward/step back nature of their relationship is compelling.
It’s far from a perfect book, but as an exploration of fatherhood, Shtum has some interesting layers amongst its able-bodied cast. Subtlety would trump shock value, and other relationships (including Ben and Emma) need further development, bug there is nevertheless a message trying to get through.