Good grief, readers, you better hold on to your hats. Jem Lester’s Shtum has been receiving glowing reviews across the board; social media is awash with praise, and the newspapers have been effusive in their compliments.
‘This many people can’t be wrong’ is not always a phrase that rings true, but in this case it does: Lester has created a wonderful, emotion-filled roller-coaster of a novel that will sweep you up and not put you down until you reach its end.
This novel explores the extraordinary lengths that some parents are willing to go in order to protect their children, as we follow Ben and Emma’s troubled attempts to both secure a future for their 10-year-old autistic son, Jonah—a journey which includes their prolonged and difficult legal battle to have him transferred to a high-quality residential school—and solve their marriage, which has dwindled down to just being words on piece of paper.
To make this happen, Ben agrees to move himself and Jonah out of the family home, both to give Emma some time to herself and because it may help their case if they pretend not to be a couple. Ben moves the two of them in with his father Georg, and the character dynamic between the three absolutely brings this novel to life.
Ben carries his own frustrations at Jonah’s inability to communicate, but we soon learn that he has his own crosses to bear: watching his relationship develop with his dad is often funny—Georg’s dialogue sparkles with humour and wit—and always moving.
Shtum really has you going through a whole spectrum of emotions, and although I don’t want to under-sell how good the novel is, if I could use one word to describe it I’d use “readable”: the sentences and pages race by as we become invested in every temper-tantrum and tension-straining scene. You find yourself torn with wanting success for Ben and Emma in their legal battle, but also knowing that to let their son move to a residential home—no matter how difficult it is to cope with his actions—will be the hardest thing they’ll ever have to do.
As a reader, you would expect that a novel packed with such difficult themes as Shtum is, may find itself low on laugh-out-loud opportunities. You would be wrong. Lester breaks up the tension and often heart-wrenching scenes with a lightness of touch that is surprising, but it works.
The reasons for Ben and his best friend wandering around town doing a bit of debt collection are serious, but watching Ben, a father wracked by guilt—and frequently driven to drink—puffing himself up to collect some unpaid debts in an effort to raise legal funds, often brings about some brilliantly amusing passages.
Every now and again a debut author simply gets it right, and Jem Lester has done just that. It’s not an easy read, but it’s a novel that manages to balance insight with a superb story. Shtum is about sacrifice, love—in many forms—and doing the right thing whatever it takes. If you’re considering the plunge with this one, take it. Allow yourself to be swept up; this reader can guarantee you won’t be making a mistake.
Thanks as ever to Sam Eades and Orion Books for the ARC. Shtum is out April 7.