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Literature / Shtum

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Shtum is a 2017 novel by Jem Lester.

Ben Jewell and his wife Emma have just learned that their ten-year-old autistic son Jonah, aka JJ, has been rejected for a residential placement because the local authority has decided that he would be better served at home. To help their case, Ben and Emma decide to temporarily split up, because single dads in their situation have a higher success rate with tribunals. Emma will stay at the family home, and Ben and Jonah will move in with Ben's cantankerous father Georg, who has always been distant towards Ben, but dotes on Jonah.


Shtum contains examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Past: The book was published in 2017 but takes place in the spring and summer of 2011.
  • Big Brother Worship: Georg worshipped his brother Jonatan, who was three years older than he was, even though he didn't talk, wandered off if he wasn't watched, was prone to uncontrollable rages, and seemed to float through life.
  • Character Tics:
    • Jonah loves twiddling things in front of his eyes, like a feather or a blade of grass. He also has a habit of jumping up and down when he's excited.
    • Valentine, Ben's employee at Jewell's Catering Hire, has a habit of kissing his teeth, which he's passed on to his teenage son.
  • Commonality Connection: Georg sees every word as a lie. To him, the truest language is the language of the heart, which he shares with both Maurice, who didn't speak his language when they first met, and Jonah.
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  • Dead Man Writing: Georg wrote a long letter to Ben, describing his relationship with his autistic older brother Jonatan, his family's death in the Holocaust, and his flight into Allied territory. Ben was never given the letter until after Georg's death.
  • Doting Grandparent: Georg adores Jonah and jumps at any opportunity to spend time with him. He takes him on walks, bathes him, and talks to him whenever they're alone, sharing family secrets he never mentioned to Ben.
  • Dream Sequence: Ben has a number of these, many involving airplanes or airports.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Georg takes Jonah for a walk as soon as he and Ben arrive. Once they're out of the house, Ben gets smashed and falls asleep in front of the TV to cope with the prospect of not seeing Emma again for the next few weeks.
  • Flashback: Ben has a series of these in "Rollercoaster," remembering his youth, the time around Jonah's conception, and Jonah's childhood.
  • Full-Name Ultimatum: Georg expresses his deepest disappointment by saying "Benjamin...." It's a painful reminder that Ben still cares what his father thinks.
  • Godwin's Law:
    Georg: He wants me to pay for his booze while he plans to have my JJ locked up.
    Ben: This is not the nineteenth century.
    Georg: No? In Hungary in 1944 they said the same. This is not the nineteenth century, it's the twenty-first and look, look.
  • Grandparent Favoritism: Ben doesn't understand why Georg is so much more open and affectionate with Jonah than he ever was with him.
  • Hates Being Touched: Jonah usually bites people who try to touch him, although he will sometimes initiate touch and is surprisingly tolerant of Georg's affection.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Each chapter is named after a communication card.
  • The Illegible: Georg's cancer destroys his ability to write beautiful cursive. In hospice, his writing looks like it was made by a four-year-old on the Tube.
  • It's All My Fault: Ben has felt this way ever since a consultant incorrectly told him that a father's alcoholism can cause autism in a zygote.note 
  • Late to the Tragedy: Georg travelled to Aszotto, the lake town where he spent his childhood summers, to rescue Jonatan from the nearby sanatorium. He found the town completely empty and smouldering in places, with the windows smashed, and when he tried breaking into houses to look for food, he found cartridge cases littering the floors and the mouldy remains of one hastily abandoned meal. He arrived at the sanitorium just on time to hear the Nazis gun down the nurses for killing the patients. He realized what happened when he found Jonatan's body.
  • Liquid Courage: Ben has been drinking to deal with fear since he was nine.
  • Mean Boss: Before Jonah was born, Ben had an abusive boss who delighted in humiliating his employees. Once he subjected Ben to a pseudo-kidnapping and ordered him to clean up more than a hundred empty bottles from his car and carry them to the skip in full view of coworkers, then ordered him to confess to being an alcoholic, go to Alcoholics Anonymous, and provide proof that he went. Realizing that his boss wanted the ego boost of "saving" Ben from alcoholism, he quit his job and got drunk as soon as possible out of spite.
  • Meaningful Rename: Georg Jewell was born Georg Friedman, but changed it after his family died in The Holocaust. He picked his new name from two sources: "Jonatan's Jewel," his brother's beloved piece of glass, and the Jewelly Sanatorium for Autistic Children, in which Jonatan spent his final months.
    Georg: I was somebody else, so I should change my name and what else could it be?
  • Mercy Kill: The nurses at Jonatan's sanitorium quietly killed all the children to save them from the camps. The Nazis retaliated by gunning down the nurses.
  • Missing Mom: Ben's mother, Myra, walked out on him and Georg when he was eleven.
  • Only Friend: Georg was this to Jonatan. He was the only person he was never aggressive towards, and when their parents threatened to lock up Jonatan to stop him from getting violent, Georg spent hours wandering the city with him, throwing stones at any neighborhood children who tried to hurt him.
  • Potty Failure:
    • Even though Jonah wears nappies, he's so prone to these that Ben receives a plastic bag of soiled clothing at the end of every school day.
    • Georg urinates on Ben while he carries him to the bathroom because his cancer and radiation therapy have left him too weak to walk to the bathroom himself.
  • The Reveal: A child's home situation has little or no impact on success with tribunals. Emma just made that up so she could get away from Ben and Jonah. She was sick of Ben's anger, self-pity, and drinking, and exhausted from taking on all aspects of Jonah's care that required thinking ahead.
  • The Speechless: As a toddler, Jonah very sporadically used a handful of words like "bubble" and "door," and months later said his last word, "Peeeder."
  • Swivel-Chair Antics: After Valentine quits, seemingly destroying the business, Ben spends about five minutes spinning around.
  • Take This Job and Shove It: After Ben forces Valentine to work overtime one too many times, he leaves a letter at the office saying "I QUIT. VALENTINE. P.S. FUCK YOU!"
  • Time Skip: The last chapter takes place at the end of Jonah's first year at his new school, with Ben looking forward to Jonah's first fortnight-long stay at home and visiting Jonatan's grave in Bulgaria.
  • Tragic Keepsake: Georg's "magic crystal" of Bohemia glass, which has been in the family for over a hundred years. Jonatan was very attached to it, and was allowed to bring it with him when he was institutionalized. He still had it when Georg found his body. Georg couldn't bring himself to bury it with him, so he took it to England as the only thing left of his family. Decades later, he passes it on to Jonah, who brings it with him when he is institutionalized.
  • Unexpectedly Abandoned: As a child, Georg came home from wandering the streets of Budapest to an empty house. His parents had been taken by the Nazis.