SHTUM

Foreword Reviews - - Foresight Debut Fiction -

Jem Lester, The Over­look Press, Hard­cover $26.95 (320pp) 978-1-4683-1472-4

Shtum is a Yid­dish word mean­ing non­com­mu­nica­tive or silent, and that’s where Ben Jewell finds him­self in Bri­tish au­thor Jem Lester’s novel of the same name. Ben’s world is com­prised of his autis­tic son, a trou­bled mar­riage, an es­tranged re­la­tion­ship with his Holo­caust-sur­vivor fa­ther, a fail­ing busi­ness, and his own en­tombed emo­tions. So of­ten, the so­lu­tion to life’s prob­lems is to talk about it, but what can Ben do when there seems to be no hope of break­ing through the si­lence?

Ben’s morn­ings start with his wife sta­tioned in the kitchen while he cleans up his son, Jonah, “his reek­ing pa­ja­mas. The aro­matic nappy and soiled wipes tied in a plas­tic bag … she deals with what goes in and I deal with what comes out.” And the day doesn’t usu­ally get bet­ter from there. That’s be­cause his ten-year-old son has com­plex Autism Spec­trum Dis­or­der, and with all his re­sources tapped, Ben’s way for­ward seems less about mak­ing choices than scrap­ing to­gether what’s left and fac­ing the on­slaught.

Af­ter a decade of car­ing for their son, Ben and his wife are re­al­iz­ing that life with Jonah will not get bet­ter. With his mar­riage on the rocks and his head in a bot­tle, Ben finds him­self back in his fa­ther’s home, try­ing to heal him­self and care for his son. As things fall apart, Ben’s world nar­rows to ad­vo­cat­ing for Jonah and learn­ing to parse the na­ture of si­lence.

Lester ren­ders a moving por­trait of one par­ent’s strug­gle to nav­i­gate the world on be­half of his child. As Ben shoul­ders the bur­dens his fam­ily car­ries, Lester shows how drain­ing it can be to do the dif­fi­cult work of ac­cept­ing and lov­ing each other. Ul­ti­mately, Ben dis­cov­ers that, while some si­lences need to be bro­ken, oth­ers must be ac­cepted if he’s to un­der­stand him­self and those he loves.

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