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Mesmerising portrayal of troubled boyhood

It’s 3 am, one haunted night in 1995, and Shy is escaping from a home for ‘psychologically disturbed’ juveniles. With a tape in his Walkman and a spliff in his pocket, he’s creeping into the ‘atrociously bare and quiet’ world beyond, bound for the garden pond with a rucksack full of rocks on his back. A lyrical and immersive read, in Shy by Max Porter, we share a few hours with a lost boy as he navigates a strange liminal space between memories, ghosts, and an unimaginable future.

Dryly named Last Chance, the juvenile offender facility feels like the last stop on the line for Shy. The earnest and well-meaning bunch of educational psychologists and teachers want Shy to rehabilitate and re-engage with society, but what if that turns him into an utter bore like his step-dad Iain? Cleaning his car, fretting about the gutters.

Getting wasted and listening to drum n bass is where Shy’s at. Music is his love, drum breaks washing like waves and lifting him up and out of his chaotic mind. In fact he’s even told his mum in no uncertain terms, that he loves drum n bass much more than he’d ever loved her. It’s the soundtrack to Shy’s life, his story unspooling as he heads for the pond, under the burden of a rucksack that he tells us twice is ‘shockingly heavy’.

Porter’s fourth novel is written with his customary stylistic flair. We enter the portal to Shy’s psyche via the heady onslaught of a three-and-a-half page paragraph, as he recalls in painful detail, the hideous, squirming embarrassment of a failed sexual encounter, swiftly followed by his expulsion from school and a siren-summoning violent rampage.

Later, Porter’s word count shrinks and the typeface grows strident. We’re hearing the angry, accusatory, heartbroken words of Shy’s parents; the large blank space of the following page the void they are screaming into.

His parents are voices of despair, shouting from the sidelines, and other characters remain in shadow. In this intense tale of self and boyhood, we’re all wrapped up in Shy. The effect is mesmerising and a tribute to Porter’s brilliantly evocative prose. He doesn’t provide a neat diagnosis of mental disorder for Shy’s stealing, crashing, smashing, punching past. Instead we get a compassionate view of a conflicted teenager, whose dark moments are often leavened by celebration of music, sex, and imagination.

In the midst of Shy’s recollections of his time at Last Chance, a snippet of advice stands out. He’s told that despite what he believes, he won’t be defined by his 1995 self, in fact he won’t even remember it.

‘2005-Shy will look back on this and agree with me. He’ll be like, I was just around the corner, Shy. Just get past this bit’.

Wise words, but will Shy believe them?

A vivid and memorable read from one of our most exciting writers.

If you like this, see our reviews for Grief is the Thing With Feathers and Lanny.

Shy by Max Porter is published by Faber & Faber, 128 pages.

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