Shtum by Jem Lester

I had really expected and wanted to like this, I read a very similarly themed book (A Boy Made of Blocks) early this year which was excellent, but Shtum was just a little bit all-over-the-place. I’m fine with stories that jump between times and POVs, provided they do so COGENTLY and in a way that assists the telling of the tale. This was just peculiar. Warning – SPOILERS to follow!

We start with the dad’s POV, from the time his wife decides they should live separately as a tactical manoeuvre that will help their son get into a better, more specialist school than the council is offering. We don’t get any real introduction to the couple, it’s just, wham, here they are, here’s their autistic son, Jonah, and all his issues and here the story shall start. The wife then disappears for the vast majority of the book, only to reappear later with a surprise tale of her own that does nothing to aid the plot but just makes you blink and go ‘Huh…okay’.

A lot of page-time is devoted to the father’s alcoholism, which is revealed gradually but in strange uneven chunks. We kept hearing more about it as if it’s a big shocker when, no, we get it, he’s got a drinking problem. So I kept thinking, is there going to be some kind of resolution or development? Answer: No. It never happens. It just keeps getting brought up.

Then there’s the relationship between the dad and his dad (the grandad). I thought the opinionated old guy was a good character, and he had an interesting back story too. But it was a sort of sub-plot that kept being returned to randomly and again, was never discussed or resolved. Then at the end we get this written revelation the old guy had left when he died, again no reactions to it, no discussion, it’s just tacked on to the finale like a spare tyre.

The weirdest part came near the end with the court case, where out of nowhere we began chopping back and forth between the present day proceedings and flashbacks from the past eras of Jonah’s life being discussed. It should have worked, it is a cool idea! But it really, really didn’t. By this point we have got to know Jonah and dad pretty well (or so we think) so a lot of the stuff ‘revealed’ has already been covered. Other times things were revealed that was completely at odds with the previous chapters and characters that had been built there, not in a good, plot-twisty way, just in a nonsensical self contradictory one. At the first jump I had to go back and reread (actually re-listen, I had the audiobook) THREE TIMES to work out what had happened. One minute we’re dad in court, the next we’re dad being escorted by some work colleague (who may or may not have been mentioned by name once or twice somewhere earlier in the plot) and brought to confront a hundred odd empty bottleshe has discovered residing in our car. Now this is seriously confusing because, dad still drinks, and there is no indication that we have gone into a past flashback, so I’m left thinking, was a paragraph/chapter skipped in the audio by mistake? How did we get from court to car? Where did this man materialise from? Then we’re back to court and wondering – ‘wow, was that a glance into the past? The future?’… It only becomes clear as you go on, and even then the clarity isn’t what you’d call crystal.

This is a pretty harsh review I know, so I’d like to end on a positive. Although I didn’t feel that this worked as a novel, you could tell the writer had experience with autism, and the scenes with Jonah were cleverly, humorously and touchingly observed and written. The content is good, I just think it needs a good editor to chop it up and rearrange it in an order that makes more sense.

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