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Shy by Max Porter

A theme is beginning to emerge in the writing of Max Porter. The difficulties of the young – the troubled minds and dealing with difficult situations. The style, rather like the titles of his books, is becoming more and more compressed and insular. Young people are put in difficult situations; death of a mother in Grief is the thing with Feathers, being the only one who sees and feels the Green Man, Old Papa Toothwort, in Lanny, and here in Shy we go deeper into the life of a very troubled teen in the special home called ‘Last Chance’.

I have deliberately left out The Death of Francis Bacon from that summary of Porter’s work. It doesn’t fit, it isn’t the same style or even the same size. My other three Porter books sit on the shelf together – same height and roughly the same thickness, but old Francis is shorter, thinner and doesn’t fit the pattern.

Shy really is a book for our times. It is an attempt to put onto paper and into words some of the sensations of those with troubled minds, mental illness and drug addictions. These are all problems that are growing exponentially in our societies but which we find hard, or uncomfortable, to talk about. Even here in New Zealand, the government announced an extra $ 500 million for mental health and addiction services. This will barely scratch the surface. All our buildings are outdated and not fit for purpose, and it will be years before new ones are even built, even though the money is available. The speed of planning and consenting is glacial at best. And all the time the staff who work there are leaving, because the conditions are so poor. No one wants to work in terrible old buildings and who can blame them? How are people’s minds going to heal surrounded by such conditions? And that is just New Zealand. There will be similar and worse elsewhere. Porter really tries to paint a picture of Shy, our central character, and how his mind works; what troubles him in his everyday situations.

In Lanny, the old Green Man had some text that curled around the page, echoing the character’s twisted mind and challenging the dexterity of the reader. In Shy we have an enlarged font where a single line runs over two pages, forcing the reader to flick back and forth to follow each sentence. We run through bold, italic and indents to differentiate one line from another and create a sense of ‘dis-ease’ on the page.

It is three in the morning and Shy is trying to break out of ‘Last Chance’. He has a rucksack full of rocks. Initially, I didn’t know why, but perhaps I should have guessed at once. On page four we learn that this is 1996 and Shy has a Walkman. We are just before the age of the ubiquitous mobile phone. The voice of his therapist comes indented and in bold. She praises the progress they have made today and Shy unleashes his first volley of anxious vitriol as he creeps from the house:

He’s sprayed, snorted, smoked, sworn, stolen, cut, punched, run, jumped, crashed an Escort, smashed up a shop, trashed a house, broken a nose, stabbed his stepfather’s finger, but it’s been a while since he’s crept. Stressful work.

Although we are mostly looking at Shy, we do also see some of the others collected together inside the ‘Last Chance’:

They talk a lot. More than any of them ever have before. Sometimes with the teachers, unpacking what they have been through, what they’ve done, just chatting in lessons, or in little groups, sudden moments of honesty. Jamie told them about when he got his diagnosis aged thirteen and all his mates stopped talking to him. His best friend started calling him a retard. I won’t ever forgive that, said Jamie. Benny talked about his dad dying in prison. He almost cried and everyone was silent while he got his shit together because Benny is the toughest and nobody ever sees him cry. Paul talked about what he’d done and his time in Borstal and how he’d lost his virginity when he was eleven and they didn’t feel easy making sex jokes around Paul after that, but Paul mostly stays in his room playing his SNES. They tell stories. Some bragging, some regret, some baffled grinning shrugs and ripples of easy laughter. They talk about how wrong school was for them. They try and figure each other out, because there’s fuck-all else to do. They each carry a private inner register of who is genuinely not OK, who is liable to go psycho, who is hard, who is a pussy, who is actually alright, and friendship seeps into the gaps of these false registers in unexpected ways, just as hatred does, just as terrible loneliness does.

I have ended up quoting the whole page there because I love the easy way we roll from simple observations to pinpoint depth about the whole situation. You can feel the emotion behind the words. You can feel the uneasy tension of a room full of boys.

As Shy lies in bed, these are some of the thoughts that are flowing through his head:

Amanda taught them about the Norns, the mystical Nordic sisters, sitting knitting futures, and that night Shy was woken by the weight of them as they sat at the foot of his bed, three ancient biddies, oddly familiar hybrids of Mum, Nana, Amanda, Thatcher, Mrs Hooper his playschool teacher, Pat Butcher, Jenny, Madge Bishop, women he’d known or seen or imagined, collaged together, risen from the smudgy mess of his subconscious, staring back at him, smiling, clck, clck, one of them’s knitting, clck, clck, fate being looped and strung as he falls back asleep.

Beautiful imagery, full of half-memories and half-remembered names and faces overlaid by the story from mythology, linking a past time with the present.

I was particularly struck by the expansiveness of this short book. The time frame is only a few short hours but it seems to swell and expand to feel like a whole lifetime and then back to the early hours of the morning. All in 120 pages. We eventually get back to Shy with his backpack of rocks, creeping out of the building and across the fields to a pond. All his senses are alive as he wades into the middle of the shallow lake. He kneels, so the water is up to his chin, but then he is distracted by two floating shapes and has to investigate what is in the water with him. Before we know it, he is out of the water and heading back to the house:

He smells of pond. Everything smells of pond. He feels like he could sniff his way into individual microbes, earthy worming growgreen liquid stink, newts and shoots, silty, fruity, and as he walks he gathers in the smell of dry leaves, crinkly things, brown oily smells, good rot, herby hydro deep woodlousey sticky mushroomy smells, things turning, things that go on smelling this way whether or not a wet teenager is here to smell them. He is all sense. He isn’t having any thoughts, he’s all smell and shadows and ruined trainers, a frighteningly awake sleep creature sloshing along.

And as his journey progresses, the structure of the narrative changes to suit the situation, becoming an inner narrative, a conversation with himself:

He could learn to speak this language: night-end. He could train his indoor pupils to permanently widen, to drink it in.

Strange dizzy wake-up. Untangling.

He breathes deeply and it’s clean digestible air. He feels it hitting his insides.

He asks himself the question Jenny always starts with:

What’s happening with Shy this week?

Well, I went down to the pond. There were these badgers and…umm, I’m heading back now. Back up to the house.

And how are you feeling about that? About the night?


Take your time.

I feel kind of lonely. Bit embarrassed and sad, if I’m honest, Jenny. A bit scared.

Oh Shy, he says, in Jenny’s gentle voice. Bad luck.

I love the inventiveness of these passages, they are alive with detail and just as Shy is experiencing all his senses at once, so are we, through inventive language and brilliant imagery. This is a great read. Short enough to read in a single sitting, like the night it describes. Hauntingly satisfying.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Published by Faber and Faber


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