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Posted on 4 May 2023 in Fiction |

MAX PORTER Shy. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Why does Shy act the way he does? Max Porter’s new novel achieves an unlikely empathy.

What goes on inside the head of a very troubled teenager?

Shy has, by his own account, been expelled from two schools, been arrested and cautioned, and has ‘sprayed, smoked, snorted, sworn … trashed a house … broken a nose … [and] stabbed his stepdad’s finger’. Now, he is creeping out of Last Chance school at 3.13 a.m. with ‘a big bag full of rocks’ on his back.

Here he is, as he sees himself:

Caught between times. In the fold. Escaping.

Little Shy at thirteen o’clock with the last of his skunk and his favourite tape. Boy on the stairs, stepping through Tom’s Midnight Garden. That’s what it feels like, fuckinell that’s exactly it. He hasn’t thought about that book for years.

Max Porter seems to have the knack of knowing just what his characters think and feel, and being able to capture this for his readers. As in his earlier books, Grief is the Thing with Feathers and Lanny, he intuits their thoughts, speaks their languages, and is innovative and imaginative in the way he tells his story.

Shy’s head is a mess, and the swirl of voices that revolve in his memory become part of an inner monologue that accompanies his escape. In this mix we hear the school staff, Owen, Amanda, Steve and Jenny; some of other the boys living at Last Chance, including Benny, with whom Shy seems to have formed a tentative bond; and fragments from a documentary about the school which seeks to present alternative views:

‘Psychologically disturbed juveniles requiring special educational treatment, or a bunch of teenage criminals on a tax-payer funded countryside holiday?’ …. [the camera pans across the lawn] ‘An ordinary bunch of teenagers kicking a ball about, or some of the most disturbed and violent young offenders in the country?’

Porter uses different typefaces to identify the voices but it is not always clear who is speaking. Amanda is introduced in the documentary as a ‘senior live-in staff member’ who ‘comes from a background of caring’. She is often named when she speaks and her voice is clear. Jenny seems to be a counsellor – ‘Shy? Anything you want to share?’. Steve is a teacher/psychologist, and Owen is in charge and the enforcer of the rules.

Shy remembers ‘conversations with Steve about William Blake and migraines and ayahuasca, conversations with the doctor about pills and avoiding weed and horror films, conversations with Jenny about fight and flight, fresh air and exercise’.

The staff clearly care about the boys but are often frustrated: ‘If you feel like an idiot, perhaps stop behaving like one.’

Shy does not understand what makes him do the unacceptable things he does. He feels the thoughts of others ‘buzzing’ in his body ‘like I can know what they’re thinking’, so he seems to ‘know what’s going on’, but ‘then it’s gone again. Just sludge. Shit. Just me again.’

As he creeps out of the building, across the grounds and into the fields, his head is full of the beat-box music he loves; his first failed attempt at sex with his girlfriend; terrifying, confusing nightmares; a happy time exploring Black Market Records in London with his cousin Shaun; and difficult times with his mother and his stepdad, Iain. Even the best times seem to end up going wrong. Mum and Iain’s words loom large, literally at one point spreading in large type across two pages. Shy knows his mum loves him and worries about him, but it makes him angry. Iain tries to understand Shy and, clumsily, act as go-between when his mum gets upset:

 If you think that’s an OK way to speak to your mum then you need to have a serious think … You cannot do this / This is not OK / … Talk to me / Talk to me / Talk to me / Whoa, calm down.

As he trudges through rough country in the darkness, Shy is aware that he is ‘overthinking’ – his thoughts ‘loping along in odd repetitive chunks’. He feels alone, ‘very small, very ignorant’. The weight of the rucksack on his back is almost unbearable, but its purpose does not become clear until late in the book. What eventuates is not altogether unexpected, but its results are. And the events that lead to these results are strange and not totally convincing, in spite of Shy’s muddled head and the effects of having smoked his last spliff.

Max Porter’s Shy is not a big book but he achieves the seemingly impossible task of making the reader like and feel empathy for Shy, in spite of some of the terrible things he has done. He also, in just fragments of text, brings to life the people whose words fill Shy’s head. This may sound disjointed, and textually it is, but it is a very understandable expression of Shy’s thoughts and the struggles he has with himself. All Shy wants is to know why he does what he does and why he always seems to mess good things up. Porter’s imaginative engagement with Shy manages to convey just what it must be like to have uncontrollable impulses and not to know why, or how to stop that happening.

By the end of the book Shy is no wiser and still prone to impulsive violence. Nothing has been resolved, but he is ‘wrapped up in other people’, and there is ‘no weight on his back’ as he ‘waits for another day’. Porter leaves the reader with hopeful images, but inevitably wondering how long this pleasant scene can last, especially as it is known from the start that the listed, historic, Last Chance building and grounds have been sold to developers and the school must soon close.

Max Porter Shy Faber HB 122pp $24.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages ( are archived by the British Library.

You can buy Shy from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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