Shy by Max Porter - review by Michael Delgado

Michael Delgado

About a Boy



Faber & Faber 128pp £12.99

There can be few contemporary writers who better prove the old maxim that quality is more important than quantity than Max Porter. His three books to date are the kinds of works you can read in a single afternoon, running to barely four hundred generously spaced pages in total. Yet Porter, a writer whose formal playfulness makes his work as uncategorisable as it is irresistibly marketable, has been a publishing phenomenon since the appearance in 2015 of his first book, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, a slim but powerful Ted Hughes-inspired novella about loss and masculinity, the central character of which is a zany talking crow.

Porter’s second book, Lanny, was less conventional still. I say ‘book’ because as soon as you open it the term ‘novel’ seems to crumble into meaninglessness. The story of a missing child in rural England told through the fragmented voices of those who know him, Lanny is a formally experimental work that makes use of poetic techniques as much as novelistic ones (as does 2021’s The Death of Francis Bacon, an impressionistic portrait of the great artist’s final days), its sentences oozing into the margins of the pages and curling round one another to create something more akin to Apollinaire’s Calligrammes than anything that resembles a traditional novel. This patchwork prose makes the materiality of the physical book apparent in a way that, in an age of mechanical reproduction, can often be taken for granted. One senses that Porter is the kind of writer who would, if he could, personally bind every single copy with his own hands.

Porter’s latest book is Shy, a virtuosic novella that tracks a single day in the life of a troubled boy. It is recognisably Porter-esque in its polyphonous, textured prose, though it is probably his least formally wacky work so far. Whereas Lanny is a black hole in the centre of

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