Book Review – Shy by Max Porter

books, reviews

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I think Max Porter is one of those authors that I will instantly buy without knowing anything about the book. I think his style is unique and stands out from the crowd. He is an exciting author and I couldn’t wait to read this one. It turned up on Saturday and I finished it on Sunday. Finishing a Max Porter book in a day is pretty standard because all of his books are pretty short. The fact that they are also full of depth shows you how good he is. I absolutely adored his other books. Grief is the Thing With Feathers and Lanny were both absolutely wonderful and The Death of Francis Bacon was a really interesting read. I was pretty certain that Shy would be another hit, which is why I didn’t even wait to finish Birnam Wood before I picked it up. Such is the power of his writing. But would it be as good as the rest?

 Max Porter can be relied upon to write short novels that pack an awful lot into their limited pages. He takes a type of modernist approach that allows him to get into the head of his characters and explore their inner turmoil. Shy, like his other novels, sits somewhere between prose and poetry. Not only do we get a traditional narrative structure but we also experience flashbacks, lyrics and conversations to understand where he’s coming from. Shy is a teenage boy who has been through a lot in his short life. He has issues with anger management. He takes drugs, gets in fights and has been expelled from two schools. His last hope was attending the Last Chance boarding school, which is a school designed to rehabilitate young offenders. In reality, it’s an old mansion in the middle of nowhere that is full of young men who like to cause trouble. Shy is there because everyone else has given up on him. His mother and stepfather have reached the end of their rope and he has been expelled from two other schools. Last Chance is, well, Shy’s last chance. 

We first meet Shy as he is sneaking out of the school in the middle of the night. He has a backpack full of rocks, a single spliff and his walkman. His destination? The pond. It looks as though Shy’s last chance hasn’t quite worked out as he had hoped. On his walk through the fields surrounding the school, Shy goes through his past behaviour and reflects on the events that brought him here. We hear snippets of his conversation with the staff at school, fragments of the arguments he’s had with his family, memories of the worst things he’s done and lyrics from his beloved drum and bass music. It’s obvious that Shy is struggling with his mental health and that it’s something his mother also suffered from. His emotions are high and Shy is trying to get his thoughts in order. His mind is a jumble which is reflected in the novel’s structure. 

It’s all very clever and really well done. Although, I’m sure plenty might see it as nothing more than a pretentious literary experiment. However, Porter only uses these techniques to get deeper into his character’s mind. You learn more about Shy than you would with a more traditional novel. What is so wonderful about this book is that Max Porter never writes off his central character. You can see that he cares about Shy and allows him to get his own story across. There is more to Shy than anyone sees. His relationship with music shows that he has great potential for the future. Far from the awful young man that so many people see, the reader can see the scared human being hiding away. We learn more in the snippets of conversation that he remembers than we would in watching a scene unfold. You end up seeing the world as Shy sees it and understanding more about how he views himself. We experience his confusion and his regret. Porter’s style is so much more than just a gimmick. It puts you into Shy’s head and to live his life.

This is a book about a teenage boy’s inner turmoil but that’s not all we see. It is clear to see the emotions of his mother, stepfather and the teachers at his school. Shy’s inner monologue is made up of other people’s words so we get a good idea of how everyone else is feeling. We might only meet Shy but this book is full of different voices. It gives the book more depth and provides more insight into what happened before this night. It also shows how mental health can make you feel so isolated despite clearly being loved. Shy is a book that forces you to ask whether young men are too easily written off. Or at least were in the 1990s. It’s easy to just get frustrated with their behaviour and punish them. However, if nobody is willing to ask the deeper questions, how can anyone be expected to change?

One of the great things about Max Porter is that he never outstays his welcome. He finishes his book at just the right time and leaves you wanting more. I will admit that I found the ending of this book a little too much in places. It didn’t necessarily fit in with the tone and didn’t feel like the best way to end it. I understand why it was done but his other novels have stronger endings. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and think Max Porter has done it again. I look forward to reading whatever he comes up with next. 

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