Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Shtum by Jem Lester

review by Maryom

Ben and Emma Jewell have reached breaking point. Their son, Jonah, was once a cute toddler trying out his first words, but, unlike other children, he hasn't grown up. Those few words were just a false hope as Jonah has turned out to be severely autistic - he doesn't speak, isn't toilet-trained, in short is like an overgrown toddler, with a toddler's rages but an older child's destructive capabilities.
Now it's time for Jonah to be changing schools. Ben and Emma don't feel the standard borough provision is suitable for Jonah; another, far more expensive, boarding school would give him a better quality of life all-round but the borough have to be persuaded to fund it. Apparently, Jonah would be more likely to get a place there if Ben were having to cope as a single father - so Emma throws them both out and sends them to live with Ben's elderly father, Georg.
Georg seems happy enough with the situation - willing to indulge Jonah's moods, to sing to him, to tell stories, even personal ones of his escape from Hungary which Ben has never heard - but it isn't a situation that can continue for long....

Shtum is the story of a couple battling local health authorities, and sometimes each other in an attempt to get the best care possible for their rapidly growing autistic son. He doesn't fit the popular idea of autistic - the socially-inept genius frequently seen on TV and in films - whether Dustin Hoffman's Rainman, The Bridge's Sara Noren or Mercury Rising's code-breaking nine year old Simon. Instead he's just, well, a child who will never grow up; it sounds sort of cute, but think about it, and it isn't - imagine the future of the parent faced with a lifetime of nappy-changing and toddler tantrums! The author writes from personal experience and it's certainly an eye-opener - both in how extreme a condition autism can be, and in how little health/education authorities are willing/able to help.

I don't think I'm giving much away by saying everything ends up happily for Jonah, at least, but I couldn't help wondering what would happen to him as he grew into an adult.

Maryom's review - 3.5 stars 
Publisher - Orion Books

Genre - adult

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