Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Tales of Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan (Templar Books)

You know by now that we love Shaun Tan's work, so if you're not prepared to sit through yet another gushing review, you'd better bail now.

Surrealism. How do you introduce the concept of surrealism to a child? The simple answer is - you don't have to. Children are already well equipped to deal with the fantastical. From an early age they have books read to them that feauture anthropomorphised animals, or bizarre fantasy worlds where the laws of physics don't apply.

For Charlotte this is the appeal of Shaun Tan books. Not because they introduce bizarre concepts that take a leap of faith to bend your brain around, but because they describe and visualise the world - or any world for that matter - in a way that children have already accepted.

Somewhere along the line though, in the transition between childhood and adulthood we lose that ability and seldom few of us claw it back.

One of our favourite images in the book. Haunting, beautiful, ghostly.

In "Tales of Outer Suburbia" Shaun Tan explores surrealistic worlds and concepts that have a jarring air of familiarity about them, but are deliciously painted in such original ways that the stories - such as they are - become magical.

For instance, take "Eric" which we've reviewed separately before as a well deserved "book of the week", but features in this anthology. On paper it sounds like the dullest story in the world. An exchange student comes to stay, is taken around by his host family, finds things a bit different and weird, and then abruptly leaves.

Now rewind to the start and put on your Shaun Tan spectacles. The exchange student becomes a magical little sprite-like creature, his fascination is not with the host family's culture but the mundane everyday objects we often completely ignore in our everyday lives. His babbled alien language and questions don't ask "where is the nearest bus station?" but he wants to know why the middle of a plughole is shaped like a flower, or what on earth a sink plunger is for.

The story ends so beautifully that it sticks in the memory, and is a stark contrast to Shaun Tan's usual fairly muted palettes and understated paintings, which echo throughout Tales of Outer Suburbia.

In fact perhaps that's it, perhaps Shaun Tan's greatest gift isn't his absolutely faultless ability to delve into the darkest corners of our imagination and dig out characters, scenes and stories that feel jarringly weird but eerily familiar. It's his gift as the grand hypnotist, an artist who can alter your mind while enjoying his works to such an extent that you can't help but yearn for more.

Beautiful, surreal, essential to your collection.

Charlotte's best bit: The Water Buffalo story.

Daddy's favourite bit: The creepy but wonderful "Man in a Diving Costume" story.

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