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April book club - Shtum by Jem Lester

(71 Posts)
CariGransnet (GNHQ) Mon 04-Apr-16 11:35:34

Shtum - details HERE - is our book for April. If you've received a copy then please make sure you leave your questions and comments for Jem Lester here before the end of the month.

Happygran65 Fri 29-Apr-16 15:07:38

I really loved this book about a family struggling to bring up an autistic son. I found it a very emotional read and it is one of the best books I have read. The book was very well written and I would recommend everyone to read it.

gillybob Tue 03-May-16 07:34:42

I am sorry that my comments are rather late, but I have only just finished the book this weekend (it is the first chance I have had to read in weeks).

Firstly I have to say that this is one of the best books I have read in ages. Once I started it on Friday night I literally couldn't out it down and read it in 3 sittings. I really liked the way the chapters were titled, (Cow, Lightbulb, Witch etc) which gave a small clue as to what you were about to read? I liked the way the book was peppered with snippets of reports and letters to and from the various authorities and schools (the letter from social services referring to Jonah as John made me angry and just summed up the fact that this poor child was just a number on someone's list). I loved the character of Ben. I felt that he was doing his absolute best despite his drinking and he came across as a very loving father . I also loved Georg and Maurice and enjoyed their own story about how they met. The character I very much disliked was Emma (the mother) who came across as selfish. She conned Ben into moving out with little Jonah and "left him to it" . Choosing her freedom, career and drug habit way above her severely autistic son.

This was a very difficult subject and a book I would never have chosen "off the shelf" despite the enticing cover but I loved it and would definitely recommend it. I would also look out for anything else by the writer Jem Lester. Thank you.

sylwright Tue 24-May-16 21:54:29

I must apologise for not posting sooner, unfortunately I haven't managed to read the book yet due to getting my house ready to sell. After reading all the comments on here though I am really looking forward to it and hope to start on it next week.

JemLester Wed 08-Jun-16 16:09:32


Ooh look, I'm first! I loved this book and read it in 3 days - even though I really didn't like the Ben character (sorry, Jem, if he's based on you).

I just can't bear people whose 'answer' to life's problems is to get drunk or high - you've still got the problem, but now you've got a hangover to boot. So I went off Emma when I realised what she'd been up to, as well.

Having said that, I don't know how I would cope if I had an autistic child - particularly one as severely autistic as Jonah. I didn't realise that local authorities decided on residential placements for such children, but I'm really glad all the 'good' places don't go to those who can afford it, leaving the less well off with the dregs.

I would have liked to meet Georg, who came across as the nicest person in the book, and wondered how closely he and the relationship between him and Ben is reflected in your own father and relationship with him?

Actually, Georg does not resemble my late father at all, apart from the stoicism. He is more a composite of all the old Jewish men I have known in my life. My father was very warm and funny and not at all taciturn – although he could be overbearing at times.

JemLester Wed 08-Jun-16 16:10:23


Ooh, I'm second! I was glued to this book! I was shocked by the behaviour of Jonah although he couldn't help it and so sorry for those parents with a child with autism. I think it was a real eye opener as to what people have to contend with. Ben's drinking and Emma's deceit really annoyed me. I felt that Georg was a real sweety. Quite clever how the author used Georg's storytelling to Jonah to reveal some of Georg's history .I wish there was more help for autistic children and their parents.
Very interesting read altogether.

Thank you, yes, so do I. It’s even more of a concern as the child approaches adulthood and even less provision is available.

JemLester Wed 08-Jun-16 16:17:58


Wow - just finished Shtum. Read it in 3 days. As others have said, relying on alcohol to get through life doesn't sit well with me - and I too was shocked to discover that Emma had resorted to drugs.

But on the other hand - I can relate to a small degree with difficulties of autism as my Stepson was diagnosed with Aspergers in his late teens. He had a hearing impairment from birth so his difficulties were put down to that. Poor little mite was sent to a boarding school for deaf children at the age of 4 until 16. It was only when his anger, unreasonableness and lack of empathy became an acute problem in our home that we sort medical advice. Like Georg in the book - we realised that our step son's paternal grandfather had always been 'odd' and most probably also suffered from Aspergers - so his condition was likely inherited.

We were fortunate in comparison with Jonah's behaviour, but living with someone who could destroy an item of furniture into a thousand small pieces just because he didn't like it, would get so angry that he attacked us on occasion with anything to hand (golf club for one!) - or insist on wearing his old clothes continually, was hard. On the bright side - he did have the much lorded 'special attribute' - he could reproduce any drawn item with total accuracy - and once he had been somewhere - he would have total recall of the place and find his way back with ease.

I would like to know how much of Jem's book was based on fact - I would guess most of it. Certainly a hard hitting book and for me, it brought back memories of our difficult time. Our boy is now in his 40's and in the care of Social Services - they fund his housing in a flat and he has a dedicated social worker who monitors his well being.

Hi. Well, certainly the process and bureaucracy of the tribunal is based on fact – I went through it myself with my own son prior to beginning the book – and obviously the emotions surrounding that have been felt by me at one stage or another. Now my own son is approaching sixteen, I envisage another battle. All the other stories in Shtum are based on experience but not necessarily real events.

JemLester Wed 08-Jun-16 16:19:19


What a brilliant engrossing read this book has been, bringing alive the problems encountered by people with autistic children, woven with the backdrop of difficult family relationships. I wanted Ben to stop drinking and work harder in his business. Georg came over so well and the strong link between him and Maurice was quite believable. I assume the story came from the personal experience of Jem Lester and feel he is brave to put it all down. Any more books where that one came from Jem?

Hello. Well, yes, I hope so! I’ve been trying very hard to make progress on number two. It won’t be about autism, but will deal with parental responsibility and identity. At some stage in the future, I plan to write Georg and Maurice’s story, too. Will let Gransnet know as soon as I do!

JemLester Wed 08-Jun-16 16:20:12


I won't say I enjoyed the book, as there are some parts of the story that do not make easy reading, but I am glad that I was lucky enough to receive a copy and am pleased that I read it. I understand that the author also has an autistic son who is in residential care, but I wondered if Jem Lester's family is Jewish. I ask because my family is Jewish, and have always believed that cremation is not allowed in the Jewish faith, so thought it odd that Georg was cremated, not buried. Overall, I would recommend anyone to read this book, and have already passed it on to a friend!

Thank you. Actually, both my parents were cremated. It is not Orthodox practice, but in the Liberal tradition it is not uncommon.

JemLester Wed 08-Jun-16 16:21:40


What can I say! Great book which ran the whole gamut of emotions. I personally do not have any experience of autistic children but this book gave me an insight into how much fun and laughter as well as tears and heartbreak an autistic child can bring. I felt sympathy for and anger at Ben for his attitude to his life and his coping mechanisms. His father's back story was at times difficult for me to read as, even though, I am not Jewish I have ancestors who were and lived in Warsaw during the Second World War. The majority died in Treblinka. The fact Ben's father befriended and helped another child and still depended on each other spoke of his great humanity from a very young age. It was heartening to read Ben finally understood his father. Ignore the language, it was just the main character venting his unhappiness and showed how frustrated he was. I'll be recommending and passing on this book.

Thank you, I’m so glad you found so much in Shtum that resonated with you.

JemLester Wed 08-Jun-16 16:22:42


..ran out of text !
I work in a primary school and we have a handful of special needs children, some diagnosed and as yet some are not.Your book gives a greater understanding of some of these children. I maintain it should be on recommended reading lists !
Fabulous interweaving of family through the story too.Was it difficult to write about something SO personal ?
All the best to you and yours for your bravery and humour.

Thank you. Parts of it were difficult to write. The interactions between Ben and Jonah, especially the less than happy encounters; and all the bureaucracy and cynicism took me back to my own struggles to get my son into an appropriate school. The revision process was actually harder than first draft; I got to a point where I really didn’t want to be in the story any more. So it was hard and definitely not cathartic, as some have asked.

JemLester Wed 08-Jun-16 16:23:36


Thank you Gransnet for yet again giving me the opportunity to read a book that I would never have chosen myself.

I found the book incredibly moving and hard to read in parts, but having said that I couldn't put it down. I was happy that Ben finally found out more about his family's past and was able to lose some of the guilt he felt for Jonah's condition.

Thank you Jem for sharing what must have been some of your own experiences, I, like others think it should be required reading for those training to care for children with autism and those local authority employees entrusted with the decisions that can have such long reaching consequences for families.

Thank you so much, I’m so glad you liked it.

JemLester Wed 08-Jun-16 16:24:29


Have just finished reading this book and found my sympathies with the characters changed as I got further into the story, showing that we shouldn't rush into making judgments when we don't know all the facts.
I was left wondering how other less articulate parents, manage to fight for what that child needs, and how the parents themselves cope if they do not have access to supportive family, money for expensive detox etc.
Like others I felt Georg was the real rock for the whole family despite himself having a very touching and harrowing back story.
I'd be really interested in reading a book that explored his story further and the reasons for his marriage break up.

Hi, thanks for the great comments. At some stage in the future, I plan to tell Maurice and Georg’s story, so watch this space and I’ll keep Gransnet updated.

JemLester Wed 08-Jun-16 16:25:26


Thank you for the opportunity to read this book. It has been an emotional experience to do so and not many books are powerful enough to evoke such a response. With family experience of several of the issues explored in the book, including autism, I knew this would not be an easy read but found myself carried along by the tide of events and often reading late into the night as I could not put it down. I would not say I enjoyed the book but found it a compelling read.
I am quite sure that many of those charged with making decisions about the future of those unable to make decisions for themselves never see the whole picture. Even spending just 24 hours in a situation would give them a clearer picture as Ben showed in his submission to the Tribunal. The stresses and strains on family life, all those forms to fill in, meetings to attend and the emotionally draining day to day existence are bound to take their toll and none of knows how we would cope with such circumstances yet those faced with them have no choice. Certainly this book should be read by anyone whose work touches on such families and by those who have friends or relatives affected by such challenges as few know what goes on behind closed doors.
I have to applaud Jem Lester for writing this book, an experience that must have been more traumatic for him than for those who read it, and yet I hope it has been cathartic as writing so often is. I wonder, will Jem continue to write about such issues or will he now feel free to explore quite different avenues?

Hi, thank you for your question. Well, I think it’s unlikely that I’ll be exploring the same issues that feature in Shtum and no, it was cathartic, so it actually feels quite liberating to move on and explore other themes that interest me. I think the next will nevertheless deal with the human condtion.

JemLester Wed 08-Jun-16 16:25:58


A few pages into this book I was taken back 25+ years to a work role in which I supported, or tried to support, parents of children with a range of learning disabilities, including children on the autistic spectrum. I heard so many stories from families and could see each one as I was reminded by a particular scenario. It is a powerful book, not for everyone I think but for me an absorbing read. It reminded me of the power of communication, the pain that can be caused by what is said and what is not said and that we don't always need words to communicate powerfully. How would it have been for Ben if Georg had shared his history, how would Emma and Ben have been in their marriage if their communication had been clearer? Changing the picture we hold of how our child will be before they are born is both difficult and painful. How hard not to blame ourselves, and when we do how easy to be destructive in that blame. The book made me consider the difficulty of coming to terms with the knowledge that our child will never achieve as society expects them to, as we anticipated they would. The pain when we see other children meet milestones from toiletting to achieving in education. To see young adults learn to drive, form positive relationships, have their own home, change their way of relating to us as they reach adulthood, the list of our expectations is endless and with each anticipated developmental milestone the pain can be re-activated. I didn't judge Ben or Emma, I didn't think I knew enough, and when I understood their pressures and stories I was pleased that I had been able to hold back and just wait and see. None of us can know what it is really like to be another person, those of us lucky enough to not battle with the special education system cannot know the pressures and pain it brings. This book gives us an insight into how it can be and hopefully leaves everyone who reads it with a deeper understanding. Thank you Jem for offering me a new challenge and thank you Gransnet for giving me the opportunity to read about Jonah.

You’re very, very welcome. I’m so glad that Shtum resonated so deeply with you.

JemLester Wed 08-Jun-16 16:26:49


This is a very interesting and thought provoking book.At first I found it difficult to feel empathy for Ben and his using alcohol to get through his days. After reading more, I could see how difficult the situation was. I felt very angry with Emma for leaving them both , until I found out about her drug problem.
The 'letters from the Authorities' were a clever way of showing all the red tape that the family were up against to get the right sort of help for Jonah. I wonder whether this is based on the letters that Jem actually received.
The appeal procedure was so complicated that it makes you wonder how anyone could deal with all the expert testimonies that were needed let alone pay for all the reports.
The lovely relationship between Geog and his grandson was very touching and it was only when we later found out about Geog's brother that the reason for his patience became clear.
Thank you for this edifying book. I now feel that I understand Autism a little better.

Hi, thanks for the question. The letters used at the beginning of some of the chapters were loosely based on my own piles of correspondence – the language is definitely the same, as is the frustration when reading them! Dealing with the actual tribunal is very stressful, as you are observing and are instructed not to react – which is hard. So glad you enjoyed Shtum.

JemLester Wed 08-Jun-16 16:30:23


Was so excited by actually winning the book in the competition! And what a book it was! Very powerful first novel - from the heart of the author. The difficulties and tribulations of life with a special child within our education/care system were so brilliantly evoked. For many years I worked as a Special Educational Needs coordinator in a Primary school and twice supported parents through the harrowing tribunal process. This was so clearly portrayed in the book and should be compulsory reading for everyone involved with children. It is hard to comprehend how hard our education system makes it for overburdened parents to get the best care for their children. There are too few schools with the right environment and support for the most challenging children and too little money to fund them. How can this still be the case in 2016?
Jem - An interesting (but equally harrowing) sequel would the fight for Jonah's long term adult placement. This is sadly the next 'hoop' most parents of such children need to fight their way through.

I agree, it’s extraordinary that these situations still arise. My own son is 16 in July and we are approaching the time for jumping through the next hoop and I feel sick at the thought. Writing about it feels impossible at present, but you never know.

JemLester Wed 08-Jun-16 16:31:02


I am stil in the process of reading this book and am so interested to learn about autism and it's affect on the child and family. By chance there is also an excellent serial on BBC T.V. now concerning the same subject.

Jem Lester says that he has a profoundly autistic child and I was wondering how much of his experience has gone into what he's written?

An great read.

Thank you.

Well, the tribunal process and all the love, frustration and heartache came from my own experience.

JemLester Wed 08-Jun-16 16:31:39


A compelling title and an interesting picture of a small child covered by a rainbow , drew me straight into this beautiful story. I found it difficult to put the book down and read through many hours when I should have been useful things like cleaning up! Ben, the father, is a complex character, full of guilt and doubts, the little boy made me smile in a sad way, and I was angry with the mother most of the time, probably unjustified. And Grandad so wise, so loving towards Jonah. To Jem I would just like to say that I found one or two of the conversations rather complicated and found it hard to keep up with who was speaking. But I can forgive you that as each character was beautifully portrayed and utterly believable. Thank you.

Thank you so much, So glad you felt compelled to keep reading – and the cover is great, isn’t it? Designed by Leo Nickolls.

JemLester Wed 08-Jun-16 16:32:23


Really enjoyed this book and found the relationships between characters well defined and believable . In particular the sheer hard work required to maintain cleanliness and some order in day to day living with Jonah. The effort required to get the best support possible was so frustrating to read while the relationship Jonah had with his grandfather was touching and revealing. Ben felt alienated from his father ..the outsider...while Jonah was privy to his history and emotional life despite all the challenges that his autism presented or perhaps because of it.
I wonder like other contributors if the author used his own experiences as the basis for his book and if so how difficult was it to get the balance between personal history and fiction .

Hi. The balance was a difficult one to strike. Of course, there is a lot of my experience in terms of feelings and emotions that runs through every character, but I tried as far as possible to take a step back. The distance of fiction allows for greater freedom when writing and I didn’t want to write a memoir, or have Shtum conflated with my own life. I hope I achieved it! It’s difficult sometimes to convince people that not every word is true, that Ben is not me. But, I promise you, he’s not!

JemLester Wed 08-Jun-16 16:33:18

Thank you everyone.