In 2016 I seemed to read a lot of books about aging, death and grief. Not by design but these were the books that caught my eye and, to be fair, by the end of the year they seemed fairly appropriate and zeitgeisty. Hopefully this year’s books will be more varied (although I have got Alison Weir’s novel about Anne Boleyn to read and I’m fairly certain that won’t end happily…) – which doesn’t mean I’m only looking for ‘head in the sand’ happy stories. Which is just as well because Shtum, the story of a man trying to find the best life possible for his severely autistic son, is really quite dauntingly realistic.
Jonah lives with his parents, Ben and Emma Jewell, in London and goes to a local primary school. Like almost every parent in the country the Jewells are very concerned about which secondary school their son will move to when the time comes: of course, their concern is far more centred on the fact that Jonah is severely autistic, mute and in need of far more help than his exhausted parents can give. Emma, a lawyer, persuades her husband that their appeal to get Jonah into a residential school will be better received if they are separated and so Ben and his son find themselves living with Ben’s elderly father Georg.
This book is quite brutally realistic in its depiction of what life can be like caring for a child with such severe autism. This isn’t anything like Rainman or even the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – there is no special skill, unless you count some very creative ways with, not to put too fine a point on it, poo. Emma is, frankly, at the end of her tether and Ben is a (barely) functioning alcoholic and the local education authority seems far more interested in value for money than in Jonah’s best interests. And yet, somehow, this is a book with an enormous amount of warmth and far more laughs than I expected. Jem Lester writes from deeply personal experience and I think it shows. This is the kind of black humour that probably kept him from collecting his child’s used diapers for a month and then delivering them to the LEA as supporting evidence for his case…Ben can’t communicate in any realistic way but, just sometimes, he is able to show affection and it is these moments which sustain Ben. Because he is forced by his wife to face up to his child’s needs he learns, the hard way, that every child deserves love, security and dignity.
So many books about families and children are written from the point of view of mothers and, sometimes, grandmothers. This one shows the relationships which develop between three generations of males and it is truly moving. I was brought to tears at some points and roaring with laughter at others. And then I was very angry that any parent should have to jump through such hoops just to get their child a decent quality of life…