Shtum was almost a novel about too many things.
Jonah, an eleven year old autistic boy who only communicates by pointing at pictures on cards.
His father Ben, who drowns either in alcohol or self-pity.
His mother Emma, who has a pill problem and is exhausted by her marriage.
His grandfather Georg, a Hungarian Jew and Holocaust survivor, now dying of cancer.
Jonah is not the kind of autistic boy we like to see. He does not have a Special Talent that could make him popular. He is fascinated by light and bubbles, frequently needs his diaper changed, will harm himself or others in the time of a blink. On an average day, he raids the refrigerator for food which he then throws around the house, paints the wall with his excretions, bites others and himself. He is not Forrest Gump.
As the novel begins, Emma convinces Ben to agree to a temporary separation. She asks him to take Jonah and live with his father for a while. She tells him single fathers have a better chance of getting their child accepted to a residential facility. Ben deludes himself into thinking Emma is waiting to come back.
Emma and Ben are exhausted. They alternate between feeling guilty for being resentful towards Jonah and overcompensating for this guilt. Jonah, without any words, communicates clearly his desires. His parents, even with all the words in their arsenal, are unable to communicate to each other.
But Shtum never became too difficult to bear, even when it made me cry. It is as much about a boy for whom language has no meaning, as it is about a couple whose marriage is disintegrating. It is consistently funny and compassionate, ultimately hopeful that love -and a lot of money- might just be enough to get through.
The novel is interspersed with official letters from the authorities who try to decide what is best for Jonah, hospital records and images that Jonah uses. These make for an interesting visual counterpoint to the text.
Shtum is somewhat haunting because it couldn’t entirely be fiction. The author Jim Lester is father to a severely autistic son, and I can only imagine his own life experiences have informed this novel. This is especially evident in conversations where we read others’ reactions to Jonah, the superficial support extended by acquaintances, the idea that such a child wouldn’t matter as much as a normal child.