Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan

Cover of "Tales From Outer Suburbia"
Cover of Tales From Outer Suburbia

On one of our recent family treks to half-price books, I stumbled upon Shaun Tan‘s Tales From Outer Suburbia. This was one of those where both my wife and I were interested. She more for the illustrations and me for the short vignettes but both of us were intrigued by the combination.

I was vaguely aware of Tan but hadn’t read of owned any of his previous works. But the cover art and a peak inside pulled me in.

I was not disappointed. The book is full of mystery and whimsy; of foreboding and tragedy; of strangeness but joy as well. There is a unique combination of minimalism and depth to both the art work and the stories.

What works about these stories is what I find interesting about short stories, even though it is not my preferred format, they contain a depth that hints at “more” behind the story and yet they seem to capture just the right amount of the story on the page. They let the reader imagine what is off the page in a way that is thought provoking and satisfying somehow.

The opening story, “The Water Buffalo”, capture this quality. It is whimsical with a touch of both oddness and sadness.

“Eric” is surreal – the foreign exchange student that is the focus is a tiny leaf like creature – but it is sweet-natured and almost heartwarming.

While one of the longer stories in the collection, “Broken Toys”, seems to end on a happy note it has a sense of tragedy about it. It has that languor of summer in suburbia with the underlying sense that a lot more is going on in the world than is captured by two boys looking to cure their boredom.

Some of the stories seem like artifacts almost, pieces of stories that are “found” rather than created. “The nameless holiday” has this quality – the sense that there is more to the story than lies on the page; a truth to be found despite the few words. The black and white wood cut illustration hints at this deeper truth in some way too.

So if like me you have been largely ignorant of the work of this talented artist and wordsmith and you stumble on one of his book in the discount table – pick it up. Or better yet buy it new so he can keep our imaginations going with more books that blend illustration, art and literature.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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