When Sian Prior walked into a friend’s party and, unable to identify anyone familiar, left again shortly afterwards rather than make small talk with strangers, she decided to investigate her own shyness. This is a beautifully intimate account of her research and scrupulous self-analysis.
Prior’s shyness, something she feels intense embarrassment about, seems at odds with her chosen career as a journalist and broadcaster. This tension between her innate nature and her life in the public eye, requiring her to push herself “over a million small cliffs”, lies at the heart of the book. Prior recalls a key period of her adolescence when her shyness became apparent, manifesting as an acute self-awareness around others. As an adult, she developed a professional persona which, to a certain extent, allowed her to conquer her “shy disfigurement”.
The book interweaves psychological theory with personal experience in an intelligent and sophisticated manner. Many of the key psychological terms are artfully introduced through Prior’s mother, a psychologist, or in encounters Prior has with experts, which elucidate shyness and its diagnostic counterpart “social anxiety”. In a clinical sense, shyness comes down to the “fear of negative evaluation” by others.
This memoir is a close relative of Siri Hustvedt’s The Shaking Woman, but whereas Hustvedt’s preoccupations were philosophical, Prior’s are deeply personal. No aspect of her personal life is quarantined from our view, including her insecurities about her relationship with the famous musician “Tom”, and here her honesty is startling. The personal and the pathological are, she discovers, intimately linked.
Shy is also a finely observed piece of writing. Prior captures details with prose equal to a skilled novelist – drinking mineral water at a party is like sipping “effervescent cement”, loneliness “like nursing a permanent bruise”. Lapses into second person give us the sense of Prior observing herself.
Late in the book, she begins to wonder whether, for certain sensitive people, shyness might not be a perfectly reasonable response to the world. This leads to a crucial realisation: that though shyness was always a part of her, so was her instinct to push herself past its limitations. The result is more than a personal story – it is a deeply satisfying inquiry into the nature of self. HT
Text, 256pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 31, 2014 as "Sian Prior, Shy". Subscribe here.