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Shy, Sian Prior

Shy. It’s such a shy word; a timid little word that begs to remain unnoticed. Only three letters long and it begins with an exhortation to silence: ‘shhh‘.”

Sian Prior is accomplished. She’s a journalist and broadcaster, a professional media consultant, a published writer of fiction and non fiction, a host and public speaker, and a teacher at universities and writers centres. She’s also a singer, clarinettist and choral conductor.

When I heard about her book, Shy, A Memoir, I felt drawn to the story of someone who, despite her shyness, has spent a significant amount of her professional life in the public eye. I was also intrigued because I’m someone who feels self-conscious and tongue-tied when out socially or meeting strangers, but I can pull on my professional persona when I must.

This review has taken me a couple of weeks to write as there’s so much in this book. It’s a personal memoir on shyness, yes, but it’s also the story of a girl who never knew her father, of a young woman drawn to men who needed rescuing, and of a mature woman facing middle age without a partner. It’s even more than that—it is a well-researched essay on shyness, with quotes from experts, including her mother, psychologist Margot Prior, and others. She also provides a reading list at the end.

The book opens after the break-up of the relationship with ‘Tom’. Sian is removing the mirror from the bedroom they’d shared. I couldn’t help wondering why she’d returned to their home to take a mirror, of all things. ‘I’ve been learning a lot about fear lately,’ Sian writes, and goes on to talk about catoptrophobia, the fear of mirrors, or of reflections in mirrors. Being afraid of one’s own image.

‘I wonder if there’s a different term to describe a fear of the reflections to be found in mirrors that no longer reflect you.’

And we see that Sian is changing …

I was particularly moved by the chapter on the death of Sian’s father when she was three months’ old. This stayed with me as I read, the child whose father drowned whilst trying to save another swimmer. I loved this passage:

‘There were two of them leading the way to the water’s edge, young ones, feeling immortal. I picture them hopping over the waves, their pale musicians’ arms flapping at the froth under the scudding clouds. Then quickly sucked out beyond the shallows by the furtive rip. Arms flapping harder now, salt water leaping into their mouths. Frog-legs kicking. Frog-voices croaking uselessly under the roar of the breakers.’

This book is told with honesty and rawness, and you trust the narrator. Sian doesn’t shy (pardon the pun) away from her mistakes. Here she is writing about Julia Gillard admission to being shy.

‘Reading the prurient, patronising headlines, I found myself squirming with a mixture of empathy and disapproval. Why did you let them see you cry? Why admit this publicly? What good could possibly come of it?

In response to Gillard’s confession, Sian wrote what she thought was a cool, clinical opinion piece for the newspapers, arguing that admitting to this was a political mistake. She suggested shyness was seen as a feminine thing, that admitting it would provoke further bullying, and that Gillard would be seen as unfit to lead.

The next day, her email inbox overflowed with rebukes:

‘As I forced myself to read through all the angry email responses, two ideas collided in my mind …
1. Shyness is a form of weakness (deep down, I had always believed this)
2. Women are weaker than men (deep down, I had never believed this)
… and produced a third idea:
3. My very clever opinion piece wasn’t about the prime minister. It was about me. And maybe it was another piece in the puzzle.’

The only detail Sian keeps secret is the identity of Tom, because he is famous and she felt it would influence the reading of her story. I have no idea who dates whom, so I didn’t learn who ‘Tom’ was until after I’d read the book. I’m glad I didn’t know because it would have affected my reading of the story, and as it was I just read it as a relationship break-up and a shy person trying to pull the threads back together and be single again.

The relationship ended while Sian was writing the book, and by the end, the reader sees a different person, one who’s been through a life-changing event, one who has been forced to search deeply and find something within herself in order to keep going. One senses this is not the book she set out to write, not what she foresaw in her future, but that she’s come out the better for it.

The story is not told chronologically. It alternates between research, childhood memoir, and more recent events, but it flows and the reader never feel as if it jumps about.

Shy is a deep account of Sian’s life to date. It’s the story of her personal journey to learn about herself, to examine her life and try to make sense of it, to discover who she is and why. It’s an insightful, intelligent book, and at the end there is a sense that Sian is accepting of her shyness as part of who she is. Maybe, it’s not a flaw after all …

Shy, by Sian Prior, Text Publishing, 2014 $32.99

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This is my fourteenth review for the AWW Challenge 2014, and I’ve enjoyed reading and writing every one of them. Go, Aussie women writers!

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