At the recommendation of a reliable source, I picked up Leanne Hall’s This is Shyness without quite knowing what to expect. Shyness won Text Publishing’s Text Prize in 2009. The Prize is awarded annually to the best manuscript written by an Australian or New Zealander for young adults and winners receive, among other things, a publishing contract with Text. So this was a pretty positive sign. Shyness is a truly remarkable book–on one hand, it is an inspirational coming-of-age tale about two people with dark pasts that embark on an adventure that may change their lives. On the other, it is a pseudo-paranormal tale that flirts with the idea of becoming a full-blown fantasy but never quite gets there. Piqued your interest? I sure hope so!
This is Shyness. The sun has not risen since the Darkness started three years ago and people are a little… different. Tucked away in the Diabetic Hotel are two people who are trying to forget. Wolfboy is running from his past and from himself. Wildgirl is running from the present, running away from pain and humiliation. When they collide, they challenge each other and push each other out of their respective comfort zones to rethink where they are going and, more importantly, where they have come from. They embark on an adventure with consequences more profound than they could have imagined–for in a never-ending night, the impossible becomes possible and in the presence of a stranger, you can forget the past be exactly who you want to be.
Shyness is not your typical coming-of-age story, but in this regard Hall has exquisitely captured the nature of an awkward relationship between two strangers in a realistic and relatable way. Both Wolfboy and Wildgirl have a past they would rather forget and are awkwardly trying to navigate toward a less painful future. While their particular difficulties are unique to this particular place and time, they are universally experienced phenomena–shame, humiliation, death, suicide, being misunderstood… a general uncertainty regarding place and purpose in this world. I could relate to Wolfboy’s longing to block out painful memories and his longing to forget. I could relate to Wildgirl’s desire to go to a different town in the hope of pretending to be someone else, someone who lives a life that is entirely different to hers. And I could relate to the stark realisation that no matter who you pretend to be, your secrets and memories are a lot more difficult to escape from.
What makes Shyness unique is Shyness itself. Hall doesn’t reveal the precise location of Shyness, and with no distinguishing landmarks, Shyness could quite literally be anywhere. An imaginary location is a familiar fantasy fiction element, but I think readers would agree with me that at no point does Shyness feel like a fantasy. Further setting Shyness apart from any other fictional location is the interesting array of people living in the area. My favourite sub-group are the Dreamers–people who spend most of their life asleep (see the appeal?) because in sleep, they live in dreams, far away from the stark reality of being awake. In dreams they can be anything they want. They are limitless. Then there are the Kidds–not so much whimsy but more terrifying, the Kidds essentially, although unofficially, run the joint. They are addicted to sugar in such a way that their side effects are akin to what is observed in people with hard drug dependencies, and they are a sub-group to be feared. Wolfboy and Wildgirl cross paths with Kidds in various parts of the book and Hall writes with such skill that I found myself feeling tense, devouring pages to find out what happens… and then feeling a touch ridiculous for being so scared by a group of children. This power shift aludes to a sort of dystopian future, but again, Hall never quite lets the story cross into that territory.
The book is full of tension and adventure and mystery, with a touch of romance. I’ll be honest, I found the climax somewhat disappointing–it got built up to such a level that the climax deserved to be a little longer, a little more involved. With that said, there is a sequel and I am eagerly awaiting my copy of it because judging by what I’ve read, it will answer some of my unanswered questions. There were a few loose ends (Where did that apparently important character disappear to? What was the significance of the removal of a particular item from a bag?) which I hope that the sequel might tie off, or perhaps Hall has just said “stuff you, use your imagination.” Though I feel like she might be more eloquent than that, sometimes less is more and the loose ends/unanswered questions are not frustrating in the grand scheme of things. Shyness is exceptional and it’s one of those wonderful stories that stays with readers, both for the life lessons contained within and the delightfully obscure and likeable characters.
If you’re looking for great YA fiction that crosses genres effortlessly (and masterfully), look no further–Leanne Hall is the real deal and Shyness is a touch of Australian brilliance.