Shy: A Memoir is warm and objective, funny and sad, and philosophical and informative – sometimes all at once.
‘When I first started researching shyness’, Sian Prior recalls partway through her compulsively readable memoir, ‘I thought perhaps I could write a book about it.’
The hesitation manifest in her phrasing proves amusingly unfounded; based on the beauty of this book, Prior could clearly write brilliantly about anything she likes. But back then, she had just chanced upon a joke that gave her pause: ‘I’m very shy. Let me tell you about it.’
There are a great many qualities to recommend Shy, from the fascinating terrain it covers to its author’s distinctive inclusive intelligence – hers is a sensibility that works to warm every page. But it is perhaps in her examination of the type of apparent contradictions inherent in being shy, as referenced by the joke, that Prior shines the most memorably. When she recounts her experiences as a kid at music camp, where shyness has ‘struck like a sudden palsy’, the warring ‘certainties’ she evokes will be immediately familiar to the similarly afflicted: ‘First: everyone is looking at me. Second: no one can see me.’
Prior’s subsequent search as an adult to unpack the causes and meanings of that constant internal duel – the way the desire to connect to others so consistently crashes into the fear of doing so – is what truly animates this memoir. Her personal stories are relayed in short bursts of chapters that are always engaging, often very funny and which are characterised by an honesty refreshingly lacking in self-congratulation for being so.
And while Prior is resolute about her refusal to write Shy as a self-help book (because ‘ironically, it’s actually self-help I’m interested in’), her determination to unpack the way shyness works and the impact it has on people’s lives lead her, and her readers, through several fascinating forays into how people have tackled the topic. Little escapes Prior’s inquisitions, as she surveys everything from a (rather prurient-sounding) Darwinian effort to research blushing to the latest thinking in circles ranging from the sociological to the neuroscientific. It transpires that there’s even a mathematical formula to measure shyness: SHYNESS = m(1-p)
The overall effect could have been scattered, or dry, or offputtingly self-involved yet Shy is anything but. Rather, it is a testament to what can happen when a great writer becomes captivated by a great topic. The ongoing popularity of memoirs in Australia could be seen as demonstrative of the Socratic proposition that the unexamined life is not worth living, but few memoirs this year are likely to be as enlightening, entertaining and as moving as this one.
That is partly because Shy is a book that you will want to simultaneously devour in one sitting and yet savour for weeks. It is at once genuinely intimate and yet universal in its application. It is the type of effortless read that must have taken a great deal of effort to write. It is warm and objective, funny and sad, and philosophical and informative – sometimes all at once. What apt apparent contradictions.
Rating: 4½ out of 5 stars
Shy: a memoir
By Sian Prior
The Text Publishing Company
First published on