To write a novel about someone who has severe autism is to grapple with a paradox. After all, severe autism repels language, turns it chaotic or, in the case of autistic mutism, simply absorbs it wholesale, as a black hole does light. This hasn’t, of course, kept fiction writers from regularly using autistic and developmentally disabled narrators and protagonists in their work.
In “Shtum,” a moving, darkly funny new novel by British journalist Jem Lester, who is the father of a severely autistic child, the narrator is a somewhat dissolute 30-something man named Benjamin Jewell. The main subject of the novel, however, is Benjamin’s 10-year-old son, Jonah, who is autistic and mute. “His mind,” the father says memorably of Jonah, “is like a dictionary with the pages glued together.”
As heart-rending as mutism in severe autism is, it often arrives with the particularly cruel backstory of a child who speaks somewhat normally in the first year or two of life and then gradually, mysteriously relinquishes language until disappearing entirely into silence. As Ben observes, “Jonah was born and it was fluffy clouds and sleepless nights. But as he reached three, the fairy tale revealed itself an impostor — the red hood fell away to show the Big Bad Wolf of autism.”
“Shtum” opens on that crossroads moment that afflicts all parents of children with severe autism: where and how to place the child in a residential facility. No matter the good intentions of the parents or how self-sacrificing their desire to keep their child at home, adolescence, with its onrush of agitating hormones, tends to make home care an impossibility. In the case of Jonah, he’s still in diapers at age 10, and on an average day, he paints the walls with his feces, burgles the fridge for food that he then flings around the house, bites his father and takes the majority of his rage out on himself.
Yet as disabled as Jonah is, he may not, it turns out, be autistic enough. He may not, in other words, qualify for the luxurious, garden-like Highgrove Manor School, which costs a staggering 200,000 pounds a year, all of it provided by the state. He may have to remain “in borough” and make do with the local, far less impressive and less costly Maureen Mitchell Secondary School. As his mother, Emma, says poignantly, “We’re being punished because we love and care for him and he’s not as good at autism as he could be.” To which Ben responds, “He’ll never play autism for England.”
Although it is typically mothers who do the heavy lifting in families with disabled children, in “Shtum,” it is Ben, a perennially underemployed alcoholic, who is the devoted and central parent. Emma loves their child no less, but as a lawyer and a highly organized careerist, she is simply less available.
Their response to the quandary of where to place their child is to pretend to divorce, in the belief that Jonah will be more readily taken by the expensive facility if his home life seems to depend on a single parent (why this would convince a judge to make such a choice is never made exactly clear). To that end, Ben and Jonah move out of their home and take up with Ben’s elderly father. The portrait of the father, a cantankerous yet loving Hungarian Jewish refugee from World War II, is one of the surprise pleasures of the book. And the midsection of the novel, which describes the way the sham divorce slowly becomes a real divorce while the grandfather and Jonah bond without words, is deeply affecting.
Overall, however, “Shtum” (the word is Yiddish for “silence”) is a bit of a mixed bag. The author elects to tell the story in first person present tense, a choice that adds a choppy, staccato feel to things and also underlines some of the narrative discontinuities that creep into the text along the way. The dialogue can occasionally feel a bit canned, as if lifted from a lesser sitcom, and the author overplays the scenes of his narrator as a feckless, self-loathing alcoholic, endlessly recycling glimpses of him drunk, drying out and drunk again.
What “Shtum” does do well, and memorably, is describe the ferocity of attachment a parent feels toward a disabled child. It unsentimentally lays out the terrain such a parent must negotiate both at home and institutionally, and paints a vivid portrait of a family under siege by this most mysterious of contemporary maladies. To its credit, “Shtum” proposes humor as a balm in even the darkest of situations. If paying detailed attention to one’s characters is a form of love, it is also a powerful, and even remarkable, love letter to a child.
Eli Gottlieb is the author, most recently, of the novel “Best Boy.”
By Jem Lester
Overlook. 320 pp. $26.95