Title: Tales from Outer Suburbia
Author: Shaun Tan
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Rating: 5 out of 5
In a conversation published by the Guardian in 2011, Shaun Tan revealed that his original intention was not to become an illustrator, but a writer. However, his writing was poorly received, and he changed tracks when he realized that professional illustrators were in short supply in his home of Australia.
Thank god for that realization, because the world is a richer place for his whimsical, surreal, beautiful, heartbreaking drawings.
My first exposure to Tan’s work was about 4 years back when I read The Arrival. A story about one man’s life as he immigrates to a new land, it was remarkable because it was told entirely without words. The facial expressions of the main and supporting characters, as well as the detailed setting, were eloquent enough on their own.
Tales from Outer Suburbia doesn’t take quite the same tack, but the words that do exist here don’t crowd out the lush images. Instead, as Tan describes in the above-mentioned article, they are like “grout in between the tiles of the pictures.”
This book is a collection of illustrated short stories. Some are longer, like the one of the grandfather talking to his grandson about how he got married. Others are one-page vignettes, like the story of a bunch of neighbourhood dogs coming together to punish an abusive dog owner after his house burns down.
All are surreal in their own way, but my three favourites are of the longer variety. However, these stories, like the rest, are really brought to life by Tan’s drawings, especially the two-page spreads. In one, a garden of unearthly flowers grows from nutshells and bottlecaps inside a pantry cupboard. In another, a paper ball made of discarded poetry looms in the sky. In the third, an interdimensional doorway in an attic leads to a serene grove of trees.
These drawings made me ache with longing and delight. I wish I could live inside one of them for a day.
However, they need the stories to give them weight – to counterbalance the beauty with something more mundane. Luckily, Tan’s writing style is simple yet evocative. The narrative voice sounds natural and even somewhat blasé, which is what gives the pictures their impact. Here’s an example of such writing, in a story about a sea animal suddenly showing up on a suburban front lawn:
The arrival of the rescue truck was an almost unwelcome interruption, with flashing orange lights and council workers in bright yellow overalls, ordering everyone to stand back. Their efficiency was impressive: They even had a special kind of hoist and a bath just big enough to comfortably hold a good-sized seagoing mammal. In a matter of minutes, they had loaded the dugong into the vehicle and driven away, as if they dealt with this sort of problem all the time.
The production values of this book are also excellent – but they really have to be, in order to be worthy of the drawings within it. Even the copyright page and the table of contents are done up to look like they’re part of the narrative. In fact, I was so caught up in the images that I didn’t even realize that the table of contents was one until I was nearly done the book.
All in all, I think this is a lovely book that builds upon Tan’s previous work, and presents a skewed world of whimsy that people of all ages will appreciate (in fact, I think it’s got many layers kids may not get upon the first reading) despite the name of a “kids” publisher being on the spine.