*Note for Read Diverse 2017 – POC author
This is Shyness by Leanne Hall was a unique and beautifully written magical realism novel. Thank you to Text Publishing for the review copy!
Told from their alternating first-person perspectives, This is Shyness is about Wildgirl – ‘a girl on a mission to forget’; and Wolfboy – ‘a guy who howls’. Wildgirl is a stranger in the suburb of Shyness, which is literally in unending darkness, and the story begins at a pub at the Diabetic Hotel where she and Wolfboy are drawn towards each other. As they venture out into the night, Wildgirl learns more about the strangeness and magic of Shyness, and details are revealed of her and Wolfboy’s pasts.
First off, this was one of the most unique and imaginative novels I’ve ever read. Leanne Hall evokes a beautifully surreal setting in Shyness, with its mysteries, otherworldly elements, and the sense that anything was possible. This is sustained throughout the whole book, from the slightly-unnerving market and psychic to the sugar-obsessed gang of Kidds of Orphanville. There are a lot more adjectives that could be used to describe the atmosphere in it — dark, bizarre, wondrous… but it’s definitely something you should experience for yourself.
The writing in this novel is also BEAUTIFUL — lyrical and evocative. I could quote basically the whole book but here’s a snippet from early on which is really reflective of the setting, as I praised above: “I imagine crossing Grey Street in the daytime. Would night fall over me gently like a velvety curtain? Or would the day turn dark in the blink of my eye? I don’t really need to see the sunrise to know that Shyness is different. It’s like there’s a thin layer of static over everything that stops me from seeing what’s really going on.” The emotions of the characters were also really beautifully written — subtle and nuanced whilst being powerful.
Leading on from this, the novel is overall very character-focused, centring on the personal journeys of Wildgirl and Wolfboy. We’re most driven to keep reading by the snippets of, and hints regarding, their past experiences and hurts. Wildgirl is really empathetic with her complete drive and desire to escape from everything in her past when she discovers a potential way out, and Wolfboy’s emotions as he dwells on a past family tragedy and the way it affected them are sensitively depicted.
The transitions between their two POVs are also nicely integrated and smooth. As we learn more about each of the characters’ pasts, we really want them to discover more about each other, it gives us a different perspective on the way each reacts to the other, and the way this was wrapped up was really satisfying.
I also liked how the novel was balanced between external conflict and very internal character-driven conflict. Their goal – to retrieve something from the Kidds — is kept simple, to focus on these emotional explorations. There are some pretty intense action sequences, especially near the end, which help break up the character focus, but we care about their personal hurts and internal journeys first and foremost. I love the way both Wildgirl and Wolfboy grow by the end and motivate each other to move forward.
I do wish we could have got more answers to some of the mysteries in the story, because I was feeling confused for quite a lot of the book. However, 1) it fit in with the overall atmosphere of the book, so I suspected some things would be left unanswered, and 2) there is a sequel — Queen of the Night — which I plan to read, so I’ll hold back from commenting on this further for now.
Overall, definitely read this for the unique, imaginative story + beautiful writing + powerfully character-driven aspects.
Recommended for fans of: The Astrologer’s Daughter and Afterlight by Rebecca Lim, Bird by Crystal Chan, Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow, Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier.