Thursday, March 28, 2019

Fiction Review: Tales from the Inner City

I struggled with how to categorize Tales from the Inner City by Shaun Tan, a wholly unique book. Graphic novel? Not really. Teen/YA? Well, yes, but not just for that age group. I finally settled on "illustrated short stories," but that still is just the tip of the iceberg. Tan, well known for his drawings, wordless books, films, and illustrations, has created something that defies description but is beautiful, thoughtful, and now I'll try to describe it!

This large hardcover book contains 25 short stories, each set in a city and focused on a particular type of animal and how it intersects with humans, often in a futuristic or fantastical world. Each of these stories is accompanied with large, 2-page color-saturated paintings, sometimes just one per story and sometimes many of them. Some stories are just a few paragraphs long, some are two pages, and some go one for longer. Every story is magical, bizarre, and strange, immersing the reader in worlds that are often similar to but different than our own. There is a wide range to the subject matter: dogs' relationships to their human companions through the ages (the most realistic one); a sudden appearance of countless butterflies blanketing a city on an ordinary day; a family in a large city that fishes from the top of their building into the air and one night catches a huge, rare fish; a board meeting where all the members suddenly turn into frogs. My favorite story involves bears hiring lawyers. They are all enchanted stories accompanied by similarly dreamlike paintings.

A sample painting from the opening pages of Tales from the Inner City by Shaun Tan.
The stories are all very thoughtful...and thought-provoking, commenting not only on the relationships between humans and animals but also humans' relationship to the earth and to each other. Sometimes, I was nodding along and could clearly see the author's point, though other stories left me slightly puzzled...but no less captivated. The paintings are all so gorgeous and colorful that they beg to be lingered over and studied. In fact, I realized that as I've been writing this review with the book next to me, I keep rubbing my hand over the cover and the breath-taking illustrations - it's just that kind of book. I see that Amazon has categorized the book under Teen/YA, and I do think it will appeal to many in that age group, but some of the stories have deep meaning and themes that will probably be more apparent (or not!) to adults. I would only recommend the book for younger kids if an adult is pre-reading it and selecting certain stories to read aloud because some of them have an element of violence or gruesomeness. It is really an illustrated book of surreal and provocative fantasy short stories for adults - in other words, in a category all its own. It is endlessly fascinating and well worth a look - or two or a hundred.

224 pages, Arthur A. Levine Books

Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.

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  1. Such an interesting format and book! It's difficult to picture it without actually holding it in my hands.

    1. Oh, yeah - this one is in a class all by itself! You really have to read it to start to understand. Very unique.

  2. This sounds like it could be really charming or really dark, depending on how the stories work out!