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Review: Shtum by Jem Lester

MHAW16 logo 300x300Mental Health Awareness Week takes place from May 16th to May 22nd with this year’s theme being relationships. Mental Health is a very important topic on this blog and I’ll hope you’ll join me throughout this week where I’ll be posting every day for Mental Health Awareness Week.

I don’t know why I expected a book about autism to be an easy read. Maybe because I know a lot about mental illness, I consider myself quite well-informed and have read lots of these kinds of books in the past. However this one was a little bit of a struggle. Not because of the depiction of severe autism, not even because of the writing style (though the Lego sentences with bricks of prose jutting out from one another incapable of seamless blending, plus the semi-epistolary nature of the novel did not earn the book any points). It was because of my conflicted and very strong feelings about the story and its characters; unrelenting and contradicting opinions haunted me for 368 pages and it was not fun.

On the surface, Shtum appears to be about a family struggling with son Jonah’s autism, specifically Jonah’s dad Ben. Jonah’s autism is quite firmly on the severe side of the spectrum. He doesn’t speak, can often be quite violent and is still in nappies at age ten. Naturally, this causes quite the strain on his parents’ marriage, and the story starts with Ben separating from his wife and taking his son with him to live at his dad’s for a while.

Now, as much as I appreciated the very frank depiction of what it’s like to raise a child with severe autism, there was only so much of it I was okay with. There was a lot of talk about the struggles of living with Jonah, how tired Ben is everyday, how difficult his son is, how depressed he feels. And fair enough, you would be in that situation, but it went on for far too long.

“He’s not a baby any more, physically, anyway. As the years have passed and I’ve watched other people’s kids developing quickly, dreading the inevitable day, when – like a burn up at the traffic lights – my son remains in neutral as they roar off into the distance. Month by month the chance of hearing words again grew fainter. Now he’s ten, statistically those words will never escape. His mind is like a dictionary with the pages glued together. I kiss his forehead and pull the duvet up to his chin. I don’t know if he sleeps at night, but as long as he is quiet I can live with it.”

After chapters and chapters of hearing about how difficult it is to take care of Jonah, I really started to feel disconcerted. Yes, we’d covered Jonah’s immense “flaws” but where were his qualities? Where were is individualities and his personality? Throughout the entire novel, even when Ben makes a very good speech about the mind of his son, I never once felt like Jonah was presented in a positive light, or in any sort of light that painted him as anything other than a gigantic burden. And as much as Ben kept making the point that he loved Jonah, there was never a moment that I felt reassured that he actually did.

“I love you, Jonah, but sometimes I wish you’d never been born.”

I get it. I do. It happens with everyone; we love our children but we don’t always like them. With a particularly difficult child who makes every day a relentless challenge, I can understand that some parents may sometimes doubt their love towards their child. But I think it’s important in literature to send the right message, even if it’s just at the end of the story to wrap things up a little in that sense. I feel like the author tried to portray Ben’s love for his son in that sense, particularly near the end, but I don’t think he tried hard enough.

But as the book continues, it’s apparent that this is not really a book about autism. It’s a book about Jonah’s dad, and his own problems he faces, most not even related to Jonah. Ben is a fantastically portrayed character, amazingly flawed and so honest, and his character serves as an important reminder that it’s not just those with an obvious disability that suffer from illnesses, mental or physical. He reminds us that even if you do not have a mental illness, you still have to take care of your mental health. Do I think this message could have been delivered a little more effectively? Well, yes. But I think that’s down to my own personal preference of how I like my doses of hard reality administered. I can still understand and respect what Lester was trying to do here. I didn’t like how Jonah was portrayed as the “problem” in his dad’s life, without the decency of giving him a personality of his own. But by writing him in this way, not as a person but as the grief-giving entity that Ben has decided to view him as, it is a very effective way of understanding Ben’s own problems.

“I tossed food back at him like a zookeeper feeding a lion. I dropped the window and felt my face spotted by rain. I lit a cigarette and furtively took another swig while the digital clock flashed the seconds and the radio banged on about Manchester United.

My God. It. Was. Hard. How could I explain it to anyone? The feeling of utter failure, the battle that raged in my head between love and desolation. I could abuse him like that because he couldn’t tell anyone. I could sit in my car inhabiting a different universe, not engaging with him and dreaming of solitude and the end of fear, because he was locked away elsewhere and knew no better.”

There is no denying that raising an autistic child is very, very hard. But what Ben has done is use his son as an excuse no to face up to his own issues. It’s easy to blame someone else for your problems, especially when that someone else is an autistic child. And though Jonah can make Ben’s day’s rough, he is not the root cause of Ben’s suffering, and it’s interesting to explore this with Ben and yes, even end up rooting for him.

It was a tough novel to read, tougher than I really expected. I would definitely recommend this one for young/new adults, even (and especially) if they don’t have an interest in psychology. Not enough people understand the importance of mental health, and I think those who haven’t had a lot of experience with psychology should be given this message. It’s a harrowing look into the world of a man who makes mistakes because he cannot understand himself, but it’s often the hard books that get to you the most.


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