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Shaun Tan,
Tales From Outer Suburbia
Allen & Unwin, 2008.

Ages 14+

The unique landscape of suburbia lends itself well to this series of stories narrated in both words and pictures by Shaun Tan (The Arrival). The fifteen stories in Tales from Outer Suburbia are filled with ordinary people who take as a matter of course what they see and experience: what for readers is distinctly surreal, however, so that they are constantly required to adjust their assumptions.

There is the adorable Eric, the “foreign exchange student”, who is tiny and leaf-like. There is Grandpa, whose story echoes the ‘things were different when I was a lad’ sort of a tale – except that Grandpa’s past is futuristic and fantastic to us. There are the stick figures, whom nobody understands and some treat badly. They evoke the tumbleweed of spaghetti westerns and readers will probably experience a moment’s hesitation the next time they pick up a fallen stick.  Then there’s “alert but not alarmed”, a musing on how times have changed, now that “every household has its own inter-continental ballistic missile”...

There are graphic tales too: very witty and a feast for the eyes.  In fact, Tan’s versatility as an artist is breathtaking, from scratchy cartoons to Italianate landscapes; from striking black and white lino-cuts to hyper-colored oils: and all these styles are brought together on the contents page, laid out as the stamps on an envelope.  Simply stunning! His juxtaposition of ordinary, everyday suburbia (a toaster or a clockwork alarm clock) with a futuristic vision of the world where nuclear waste and missiles are just a part of the ordinary suburban landscape, could be overly satirical but Tan manages also to portray a great deal of affection for and an acceptance of the vagaries of his outer-suburban subjects.

Tan has a great talent for building up and shifting the different layers of meaning and his stories are haunting and thought-provoking, as well as funny and quirky. This is a book for anyone who loves seeing how far imagination can go. Young adults and adults alike will enjoy the slightly subversive quality of the surrealism in this veritable masterpiece.

Marjorie Coughlan
September 2008


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