Shy: A Memoir

Sian Prior

Shy: A Memoir
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Shy: A Memoir

Sian Prior

Shy. It’s 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. Reserved is different. It’s for tall men with jutting jaws. Prime ministers can appear reserved: never shy. Restrained carries itself with dignity. Even introvert has a whiff of authority about it: these people have been tested; Myers and Briggs have awarded them an impressive three-syllable psychological label. But with shy there’s no authority, no control. It’s a blushing, hunching word; a nervous, knock-kneed, wallflower word. A word for children, not grown-ups, because surely grown-ups grow out of shyness. Don’t they?

Sian Prior has maintained a career in the public eye, as a broadcaster and performer, for more than twenty years. For far longer than that she has suffered from excruciating shyness. Eventually, after bolting from a party in a state of near-panic, she decides to investigate her condition. What is it-shyness? Where did hers come from? Why does it create such distressing turmoil beneath her assured professional front?

As Sian begins to research the science of social anxiety, other factors present themselves as facets of the problem. Family, intimate friendships, self-perception and fear and longing and the consequences of love…While, in counterpoint, there is the security, the sense of belonging, she finds in the life she shares with Tom, her famous partner. Until he tells her he is leaving.

Shy: A Memoir - frank, provocative, remarkable in its clarity and beautifully written - is a book about unease: about questioning who you are and evading the answer. It is about grief, and abandonment and loss. It is about how the simple word shy belies the complex reality of what that really means.

Review

As a well-known journalist, broadcaster, teacher and singer who has spent most of her career in the spotlight, it seems quite strange that Sian Prior’s first book should be all about her shyness. Perhaps more remarkable is that Prior’s discussion of what it means to be shy should be explored through memoir, a medium that, for the most part, requires the author to reveal detailed information about their life and open their private, personal world to the public.

But this isn’t an ordinary memoir. To begin, the contents page reads like a stream of consciousness, spooling down the page: ‘But Why’, ‘What If’, ‘The Boys’, ‘Mistaken Identity’, ‘Mirror Mirror’. The book is split into two parts, with over 30 sections in the first and 16 in the second. This unusual fragmented structure allows for Prior to explore the complexity of shyness through a range of prose, from funny, short reflections in ‘What’s That?’, where she discusses the disconnect between listener and speaker, to interviews with psychologists, personal stories of social anxiety and the devastation of a broken relationship, and childhood memories of loss and longing.

This creative multiplicity is best put to use when Prior splits herself into ‘Shy Sian’ and ‘Professional Sian’ during her interviews with her mother, Professor Margot Prior. The interesting dynamic between professional/mother and journalist/daughter allows for a blurred duality of psychological theory anchored to a shared personal history. At the end of their discussion, Professor Prior remarks on how proud she is of her daughter’s public admission of shyness: ‘In your professional life, nobody would ever dream you were shy.’ Prior’s memoir is about acknowledging this slippage between the public and private: what is hidden, what we don’t reveal. Shy is a fascinating and engaging read.


Felicity Ford is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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