Shtum by Jem Lester

25369192Good 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.


The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood

25862989Make no mistake about it: Monica Wood has delivered a heart-warming gem of a novel this autumn. The One-in-a-Million Boy is a story that plays on the heart strings in a simple but effective way, as the reader witnesses the unlikely coming together of young and old.

Ona Vitkus is 104-years-old, lives alone, and has kept her secrets closely guarded for every last one of those years. She is the last person that expects to find one final, meaningful friendship, but when the boy enters her life—initially to help out with domestic tasks, but instantly bringing the promise of something much more—that is exactly what she finds.

This strange child, just 11 years of age, is absent for the vast majority of the novel, but even though disaster strikes early, events centre around him. His love of words, of Guinness World Records, lists—and an ever-questioning thirst for knowledge and facts—sweeps Ona up as she begins to feel special for the first time in decades.

They form the most unlikely of relationships as they set out on a mission to get Ona into the record books, but when their friendship suddenly comes to a crushing close, Quinn, the boy’s father—guitar player, irresponsible father, but for all his faults loyal at heart—sets out to finish what his son started. He too initially arrives to continue with the odd jobs, but soon bonds with Ona through their shared grief.

Elsewhere, the boy’s mother is the most peripheral figure in the novel—and perhaps, from a character perspective, the least exciting—but The One-in-a-Million Boy bursts into life with an impromptu road trip that is unexpected, but brilliant in its execution. Ona has her own reasons for travelling, as we are drip fed her secrets in superbly crafted flashbacks that show her recorded conversations with the boy for a school history project. Yet she isn’t the only one: all the characters in this novel have their own secrets and crosses to bear.

Wood has written a book that plays on your emotions: it can be sad, funny and uplifting, often within the space of a few paragraphs. The boy is the thread that binds together an unlikely cast, but it is through emotions like grief and loss that we often find out the most about ourselves.

The boy remains nameless because he represents something bigger: in his pleasure for the things he loved—and the pursuit of those interests—he shows people how life should be lived. A valuable lesson, and one which Wood has delivered in what is a wonderful, poetic novel.

My thanks to the wonderful Caitlin Raynor and Headline Books for the ARC. The One-in-a-million-Boy is out April 5.