Within just a few months of being published, Jem Lester’s debut novel, Shtum, was attracting the attention of national media and garnering hundreds of positive reviews online.
It’s the sort of success that first-time authors dream of and for the Southgate-born writer, an affirmation that his story, inspired by his own relationship with his autistic son, really resonates with readers.
During our meeting, Lester, who is nearing 50, even stops the interview half-way through to proudly show me the hardback version – a sign that the novel’s momentum is going strong.
Shtum revolves around the story of three generations, including Ben and Emma, and their severely autistic 10-year-old son Jonah, who cannot communicate.
It charts their struggle to fight for the right type of residential care to suit him, leading to a court battle. The events closely echo Lester’s own life and his relationship with Noah, who will soon turn 16 – and who, Lester tells me with a smile, now towers over him.
“What’s in the book is just the surface of what we had to deal with, but everything that happens with Jonah is the reality of having a child with Jonah’s autism. That’s what you deal with on a daily basis.”
Having worked as a journalist before becoming an English supply teacher, writing has been something that Lester has wanted to explore his entire life.
“I went through the whole tribunal process with Noah. It was draining and a very difficult few years and I kind of promised myself that when the tribunal was over, I was going to step off the carousel and do a master’s degree in creative writing.”
Lester was offered a place at City University, where his lecturer suggested he write about autism. But he admits being unsure at first.
“It was serendipitous, because the last thing I wanted to do was write about that. But I discussed it with many people and thought if I do this, it has to be honest and funny – because a lot of what my son does is hilarious.
“What I didn’t want to write was a single narrative, misery memoir about going through all the motions of the tribunal. It had to be about more than just autism.”
For the book, Lester draws upon his Jewish heritage and laughs when he admits: “I can write Jews. It’s not all I can write, but whilst my upbringing was fairly secular, I grew up around
Yiddish. It was a big part of my childhood living in a small Jewish community in Southgate.”
He also observes that he grew up at a time when the state of Israel had only just been formed and his parents’ generation were still struggling to come to terms with the Holocaust.
“We are now so used to the Holocaust being featured in every form of education with thousands of books published, but it wasn’t like that in the early 1970s. People didn’t really want to talk about it.”
The book reflects on this in the complex relationship shown between Ben and his father, Georg, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, whom Lester describes as a “stoic individual”.
Georg’s back story is used as a vehicle to provide more details about Ben’s character.
“It’s all a story within a story to explain the way he is,” adds Lester. “I do believe in second generation survivor guilt and that stuff is still handed down. It is interesting to put those three generations together”.
Communication is a large theme within the book, between those who can speak to each other and those that remain literally “shtum”. While Ben has a difficult relationship with his father so, too, does he have issues with Emma and the pair find they cannot communicate with each other because of self-pity, anger and shameful thoughts.
Admitting some of the characters are not always likeable, Lester reflects that the family has been placed under strain, just as it was in real life. “I think the whole situation just turns people inside out,” he says.
Yet despite the heavier issues dealt with in the book, Shtum also provides a life-affirming and uplifting glimpse into the life of a family coping with autism.
Given the novel’s continuing popularity, it’s clear that readers are certainly not keeping quiet about Shtum.
• Shtum by Jem Lester is published by Orion, priced £7.99 and available now