Two Short Reviews – Lelic and Porter

The House by Simon Lelic

I’ve read four of Lelic’s novels before and really enjoyed all of them, especially his debut, Rupture – which was a whydunnit, and his third, The Child Who, told from the PoV of a child murderer’s solicitor. After those three, he changed tack towards psychological thrillers, retaining his skill at finding different takes to tell his stories; his fourth novel, The House is the first of these.

Jack and Syd are a young couple desperate to move in together and get on the housing ladder. When Syd finds a house on the internet, they go to the open day – the owner was selling it complete with a hoard of contents, including creepy taxidermy. Jack didn’t take to the house, but ‘Syd was smitten’. She persuades him that they should put in an offer anyway. The interest was so huge Jack felt safe that they didn’t have a chance. But, the owner had specified the house should go to a nice young couple – and they were picked – Syd and Jack decided to go through with the purchase.

They moved in, got rid of the taxidermy and cleared a couple of rooms. All seems OK, but Jack discovers something in the attic, which he thinks would spook Syd so he doesn’t tell her about it. Then other things start not to add up any more and life takes a dramatic turn for the couple when they meet Elsie, a young girl living in the house behind theirs, whom they suspect is being abused by her father.

Lelic tells the story in short chapters alternating between Jack and Syd’s voices, beginning near the end. Their accounts are written down, shared with each other, so they know what each other has said – at least at the start. It’s cleverly done.

The only problem is, now writing this a few weeks after finishing the book, I can’t remember what actually happens! I do remember finding the story as gripping to read at the time as the other books by Lelic I’ve read, but it hasn’t stuck with me. So while I would recommend this book, it’s not his most memorable!

Source: Own copy. Simon Lelic, The House (2017), Penguin paperback, 340 pages.

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Shy by Max Porter

It would appear that Max Porter is incapable of writing a straight-forward text! That’s not a bad thing at all of course, his fourth novella follows his chosen path of fractured experimental writing, which still has a definite story arc to it percolating through the interstitial spaces around the text.

Shy is the story of one night in the life of a troubled teenager, who escapes from Last Chance, a home for ‘very disturbed young men’, drawn away from the old listed buildings into the fields and woods beyond to a small lake. The novel begins in a page of short one-sentences:

The rucksack is shockingly heavy.

It’s 3.13 a.m..

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

From the very first words, we’re triggered with the possibility of what Shy is planning to do. It’s a good thing that this novella is a mere 122 pages, full of wide-spaced paragraphs and vignettes, for there was no way I was going to put this book down until I’d found out what happens.

There are several different voices, told in different font styles and alignment. The core one is the basic narrative, encompassing Shy’s own voice, both internal and external with speech in italics; there’s another in a bold inset font for his friends and enemies, teachers and psychologists; there are quotes from school reports etc in inset normal italics, then there are right-justified quotes from another narrator (possibly in Shy’s head, as are all the other voices) as if for a school website/film, but not really…

‘This is Shy. He’s usually to be found here, in the snug, with his headphones on, chatting to himself.
He’s asked not to be filmed. But say hello,
will you, Shy?’

There’s an irony there, as if someone has not given permission to be filmed, professional staff would never violate that. It makes him sound like a cat up for adoption on a website or something! All the inserts in this particular voice are dead-pan and full of cynicism.

In Shy’s backstory, generally told in longer sections, he is at the age of experimentation with sex and drugs, speaking in really bad language, rejecting his mum and stepfather – the former still loves him, the latter tries, but protects his mum. He is making the bad, angry choices that will get him excluded from school and ending up at Last Chance.

With the different voices, you might expect comparisons with Lanny, but that would be to miss the point. Lanny was a choral novel, whereas Shy is everything in this book, and we’re invested in him completely from the beginning. The prose is tough yet tender, visceral and anatomical in its detail yet haunting as Shy reaches a climactic point in his life, a coming-of-age moment that could result in tragedy or finding a new reality to believe in.

All along I couldn’t help thinking of comparisons with Anthony Burgess’s Alex from A Clockwork Orange reviewed here – another troubled teen, although Burgess’s treatment for Alex is rather different to the Last Chance school, however, there is a coming of age moment for Alex too.

Shy is another dazzlingly inventive and touching novella from Porter, different again to his previous ones, and totally unputdownable.

Source: Own copy. Max Porter, Shy (2023) Faber, 122 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

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