Review: Tales from Outer Suburbia, by Shaun Tan

For some reason, I don’t know why, I had a strong impression when reading this collection of short stories that it was a Canadian book. There’s nothing Canadian in it. It’s Australian, actually. But it has a very familiar feel.

At any rate, I got a chance to review Shaun Tan‘s work through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. The most fun part about getting ER books, if you’re me, is that I always forget that they’re coming — and so it was a lovely surprise when this book showed up in the mail.

It was a better surprise when I read it.

Here’s the back:

do you remember the water buffalo at the end of our street? or the deep-sea diver we found near the underpass? do you know why dogs bark in the middle of the night?

Shaun Tan, creator of The Arrival, The Lost Thing, and The Red Tree, reveals the quiet mysteries of everyday life: homemade pets, dangerous weddings, stranded sea mammals, tiny exchange students and secret rooms filled with darkness and delight.

Tales from Outer Suburbia is a hard-bound collection of short stories, a delightful picture book for grownups. It is heartbreakingly whimsical, and the stories feel, somehow, both alien and familiar. There’s the story of Eric, a foreign-exchange student small enough to use a walnut as a suitcase. There’s the night of the great turtle rescue. There’s a wake, and instructions for making your own pet out of discarded household objects. And an explanation for what happens to the world when the map ends.

The great strength of this book is in the illustrations, as the text is mostly spot-on, as in “The Water Buffalo” and “The Nameless Holiday”, but sometimes lags a bit, as in “Broken Toys”. Tan uses many different techniques: pencil crayon, paint, ink line drawings, and collage feature prominently. The pictures sometimes do more to offer a counterpoint to the text than to “illustrate” it, I think. It is good.

The stories themselves are brief, with a few of them being only two or three paragraphs long. They are, for the most part, unresolved vignettes — glimpses into other moments in other lives. They ache.

You can view some of the illustrations and Shaun Tan’s comments here and here, respectively.

3 thoughts on “Review: Tales from Outer Suburbia, by Shaun Tan

  1. Sounds like an interesting collection of short stories from the bizarre to the mundane. I think this would be a good read…i love books with illustrations..i guess i'm just a big kid.Can I just mention that that watermelon at the top in the header has made my mouth water.


  2. They're not really mundane — or rather, they are the mundane transfigured into the ethereal. Doesn't that sound like I'm writing bad promotional copy? At least I haven't said “luminous”!


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