Shy by Max Porter

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Reviewed by Annabel

Now that he’s four novels into his career with Shy, it would be fair to say that Max Porter is one of the UK’s most inventive novelists. Writing a straight-forward text is not something he is interested in. He likes playing with form, structure and voice, tending to use a vignette style that give a different reading experience to his narratives. His first novel (reviewed here) explored a father’s grief though the antics of a crow; his second, Lanny, had a chorus of squabbling village voices watched over by an ancient Green Man type spirit in the woods; his third was a series of word paintings in the mind of the dying artist Francis Bacon (reviewed here). All three of them unconventional and all three utterly compelling reads.

His fourth book, a novella, continues to follow his chosen path of fractured experimental writing with a definite story arc to it percolating through the interstitial spaces around the text.

Shy is the story of one night in the life of a troubled teenager, who escapes from Last Chance, a home for ‘very disturbed young men’, drawn away from the old listed buildings into the fields and woods beyond to a small lake. The novel begins in a page of short one-sentences:

The rucksack is shockingly heavy.

It’s 3.13 a.m..

It’s a full bag of rocks, of course it’s heavy.

From the very first words, we’re triggered with the possibility of what Shy is planning to do. It’s a good thing that this novella is a mere 122 pages, full of wide-spaced paragraphs and vignettes, for there was no way I was going to put this book down until I’d found out what happens.

There are several different voices, told in different font styles and alignment. The core one is the basic narrative, encompassing Shy’s own voice, both internal and external with reported speech in italics; there’s another in a bold inset font for his friends and enemies, teachers and psychologists; there are quotes from school reports etc in inset paragraphs of normal italics; there are occasional large type rants in short phrases separated by slashes; and finally, there are right-justified quotes from another narrator (possibly in Shy’s head, as are all the other voices) as if recording the soundtrack for a school website/film, but not really…

‘This is Shy. He’s usually to be found here, in the snug, with his headphones on, chatting to himself.
He’s asked not to be filmed. But say hello,
will you, Shy?’

There’s an irony there: if someone has not given permission to be filmed, professional staff would never violate that. It makes him sound like a cat up for adoption on a website or something! All the inserts in this particular voice are dead-pan and full of cynicism.

In Shy’s backstory, generally told in slightly longer sections, he is at the age of experimentation with sex and drugs, speaking in really bad language, rejecting his mum and stepfather – the former still loves him, the latter tries, but protects his mum. He is making the bad, angry, violent choices that will get him excluded from school and ending up at Last Chance. (The choice of name for the school was the only thing that jarred for me, too obvious and heavy-handed.)

With the different voices, you might expect comparisons with Lanny, but that would be to miss the point. Lanny was a choral novel, whereas Shy is everything in this book and most of it is in his head. We’re invested in Shy completely. The prose is tough yet tender, visceral and anatomical in its detail, yet haunting as Shy reaches a climactic point in his life, a coming-of-age moment that could result in tragedy or finding a new reality to believe in.

All along I couldn’t help thinking of comparisons with Anthony Burgess’s Alex from A Clockwork Orange – another troubled teen. Although Burgess’s treatment for Alex is totally different to the therapies at the Last Chance school, there is also a coming-of-age moment for Alex too. 

Shy is another dazzlingly inventive and touching novella from Porter, a different subject again to his previous ones, and just as unputdownable.

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Annabel is a co-founder of Shiny and one of its editors.

Max Porter, Shy (Faber, 2023). 978-0571377305, 122pp., hardback. 

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