Books

Shy review: Max Porter's spectacular novel unpacks teen attitudes to masculinity

Max Porter's fourth novel, Shy, enters the world of a chaotic adolescent as he navigates a last-chance home for troubled youth

Shy by Max Porter

Max Porter, writer-cum-saint of the experimental novella, has crafted a spectacular fourth novel, Shy. The narrative constellates around an evening in the life of Shy, a white British teen, deposited at Last Chance, a home for young men deemed too disturbed for society. Picture a ’90s kid stomping through the night, jungle music blaring on his Walkman, his pasty face ecstatic with syncopation. For Shy, music is a consolation amid the noise and haste, an escape from the muchness of a world beset by triggers.  

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Shy’s chaotic brainscape is presented via a typical Max Porter polyphony, the acrobatic prose nosediving off the page. His rage comes like clockwork. Constantly kicking off, he trashes rooms and personal relationships – royally titting up his hopes in the process. But Shy despairs at his own impulsive reactions. His shame is a sweating thing that crouches on his shoulders and mauls his dreaming. Porter does not attribute a single cause for Shy’s behaviour, though his interactions might suggest neurodivergence. Movingly, Last Chance’s dedicated staff are persistent in supporting the young men they safeguard. Through painful conversations, adolescents unpack their relationship to masculinity, where boyhood can become a cesspit of terrifying expectations. Shy’s whiteness contours his experience with the authorities, contrasting with friends of colour. Like many important organisations, run ragged by government policies that devalue and defund their work, the fictional Last Chance faces destitution. Awaiting eviction from their ghosted manor house (an apt metaphor for UK mental health services), the boys fear the loss of this caring space that accepts them in all their complexity. Through nurture, creative expression, listening and being listened to, Shy and his fellow brethren might unwind. Though the public has spat them out, they have created their own community.

Annie Hayter is a writer and a poet

Shy book cover

Shy by Max Porter is out now (Faber, £12.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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