Review: Tales from the Inner City by Shaun Tan

Erich Mayer

Shaun Tan has once again produced an extraordinary work.
Review: Tales from the Inner City by Shaun Tan

Shaun Tan's Tales from the Inner City published by Allen and Unwin.

Lovers of the arts will not be surprised that with Tales from the Inner City, Shaun Tan has once again produced an extraordinary work. His haunting poetic prose and the captivating mysticism of his illustrations invade the very being of the reader.

Tales from the Inner City is a collection of 25 beautifully illustrated episodes. Some are short stories, some are poems, some are musings. Their length varies, but their power is not a function of length. Each episode is based on an animal – the first one is called ‘Crocodiles live on the eighty-seventh floor’ and the last, which features human beings, is titled ‘We tell each other the same story’. Tan more than once refers to humans as hairless apes and speculates that animals will still be around when the human race no longer exists.

One of the outstanding episodes is a poem in words and pictures about the mutual love affair between humans and dogs. It has something to say about history, about death, about gender and about hope. It is called ‘Once we were strangers’.

Another of the stories is about fishing. It starts with the phrase, ‘Consider this: there’s no ocean in our city.’ So what do the children who want to go fishing do? They sneak out at night and go fishing for a moonfish – a spectacular fish that swims in the sky. Their adventure makes for a great story and in the process lets Tan point out the inherent cruelty of fly fishing. And the tale is laced with some of Tan’s characteristic insights: ‘We, the hoi polloi, had never eaten there and never would. We cited moral reasons, always a good cover for the absence of privilege’.

Even though the stories feature a particular animal, they take place in an urban environment. Skyscrapers are the cliffs on which the pigeons perch. A bear climbs the steps to the courthouse hand in hand with its lawyer. The lungfish emerge from the drains and gutters of the city. Perhaps an exception to the metropolitan setting is the landscape of the hippos that an incredibly gifted boy dreams about as a relief from the real world. This boy is persecuted because ‘he presented public lectures about a political system that would end all military conflicts, a fiscal system that gave a commercial index to moral virtue, and a world without religion’.

The publisher deserves credit for printing this book on high quality glossy paper, and using section sewn binding, thus allowing the many illustrations to be viewed at their best. In spite of this, the price of the book is surprisingly modest. The presentation is further enhanced by a contents page that shows a black silhouette of each animal, with the page number on which it first appears printed in white on its body.

This book is billed by its publisher as an educational work targeted at children and teenagers. But while it is said that the best children’s books are also loved by adults, Tales from the Inner City is best described as a brilliant book for adults that can also be loved by children.

5 stars ★★★★★
Tales from the Inner City
Shaun Tan
Category Children's
ISBN 9781760523534
Publisher A&U Children's
Imprint: A & U Children
Pub Date October 2018
Page Extent 224
AUD $35.00
What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog humblecomment.info