Book Review

Shy is Max Porter’s fourth novel, after Grief is a Thing with Feathers and Lonny, both literature with a magical realist spin. Shy, on the other hand, is contemporary literary fiction which focuses inside the mind of the sixteen-year-old protagonist, Shy. His mind is a sort of (dis)organized chaos as he processes through a mountain of mental health struggles, including emotional trauma, explosive anger, night terrors, and depression. Shy’s constant negative release of emotions renders him a menace to society and a burden to his loved ones, especially his mother. “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 stepdad’s finger . . .” The entire course of the story lasts only a few hours, as Shy escapes Last Chance—a home for troubled youth—at 3:13 in the morning, while carrying a rucksack full of rocks, which are representative of his burdens. The story ends at sunrise.

The novel opens with multiple one-line sequences, inviting the reader into a poetic style of writing. Nearly every line follows a rhythmic cadence, illustrating Shy’s thought patterns as he speaks his mind in a hip-hop style of verse. Porter takes this unique writing style to a new level. When Shy’s thoughts are interrupted by another thought or by dialogue, Porter illustrates this by utilizing a different font style:

The room is molten soft. Tempting.


The rucksack is shockingly heavy.

It’s 3.13 a.m.

It’s a bag full of rocks, of course it’s heavy.

            The average flint is about 600 million years old, said Steve.

Snapping point. Creaking straps.

Walkman ready.

Utilizing this writing style sets Porter’s work apart from other works in this genre as he continues to weave a stream of consciousness style and lyrical rhythms within the literary realm. However, it should be noted, at times, it is difficult to distinguish when Shy is speaking aloud to himself versus thinking. It’s clear, though, by Shy’s thought process, that his character is also heavily influenced by 90s hip-hop and rap, which appears frequently throughout the novel.

With Porter’s lyrical style and often chaotic writing in this fast-paced novel, Shy melds together a work that reminds me of musicians like Eminem and The Prodigy. As Shy disappoints those around him, especially his mother, he looks forward to escaping by listening to “Funeral tunes. Headphone tunes. Party tunes. Bad mood tunes.” Navigating through continual change, instability, and pressures of the future seem to break Shy in a way, rendering him nearly incapable of dealing with life due to his disassociation through music and his thoughts. “He’s saving the music for later. The thing he always has to look forward to, which will never disappoint him. He lists as he walks. Here Come the Drumz. Dark Angel. Ribbon in the Sky. Gangsta Hardstep . . .” Throughout his venture, Shy thinks about the consequences of his anarchic attitude and actions. Not only is he grappling with his past, but Shy is also afraid of what the future will hold, especially after Last Chance is sold and renovated into an apartment complex.

Shy is “bullied by time” both from his past and his future. Notably, throughout the novel, Porter utilizes a rucksack full of flint stones as the perfect symbol for Shy’s burdens. Shy and the other “’psychologically disturbed juveniles’” were placed at Last Chance as a last resort, in hopes of changing their menacing ways. After numerous episodes of explosive anger, Shy’s mother continually resents her son and utilizes manipulative methods in an attempt to change his behavior. Shy repeats his mother’s words: “Do you want to break this family apart, is that what you want? . . . Wow, here we go again . . .” Throughout Shy, Shy desires empathy towards those he has wronged, but denies himself the ability to admit he is truly sorry. Each time he apologizes to his mother, for example, it’s as if he can’t help himself but to habitually act out, which, consequently, landed him at Last Chance.

After carrying the rucksack for awhile after fleeing Last Chance, Shy fears removing it “would feel like breaking the rules,” as if he is finally learning to be empathetic. His symbolic journey in the middle of the night allows him to think deeply about his actions. Later, Shy is “carrying a heavy bag of sorry” and eventually “wants to put the rucksack down” rather than be a glutton for punishment. Shy’s physical journey of carrying the heavy rucksack illustrates a dynamic character who, in the end, simply needs comfort and acceptance.

About the Reviewer

Stephanie Nesja earned her MA in English with an emphasis in writing in 2021 from the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. She enjoys writing nonfiction creative essays, as well as short stories, and is writing her first novel. Stephanie recently published her debut book—an essay collection titled Unfaltering Flame.