Thursday, 6 November 2014

The Lost Thing, by Shaun Tan

The Book of Lost Things
I’ve read this picture book a number of times and each time I’ve decided that it’s about something different. I’m amazed at the depth of meaning that something so short, so deceptively simple can have. I can’t decide if it’s about depression, or passivity, or bureaucracy or information overload. Or just about daring to be different. It is wishing that we worried less, or cared more? It’s so rich with signs and symbols and meaning you can pretty much make it about whatever you want. The sign of an excellent and  more importanly, versatile picture book.

Shaun is wandering past the beach one day, working as ever on his bottle top collection (classification seems to be something of a national pastime) when he spots something out of the ordinary. A big, red machine type thing with tentacles is sitting on the beach looking forlorn. Nobody else seems to have noticed it. Too busy.

After playing with it for a while, Shaun realises that it is in fact lost, and attempts to find a place for it. Having found his parents’ house and their shed unsuitable (when they eventually noticed the Thing), he decides to hand it over to the authorities, the proper department of Odds & Ends. Shaun experiences a bit of a moral dilemma and embarks on a symbol-laden journey of discovery with his Lost Thing.

The artwork in this book is simply brilliant. There’s a washed out, sepia steampunk feel, the bizarreness of Dali sketched with the muted colours of Lowry, with some wacky Wallace and Gromit inventions thrown in. It’s a sterile and bureaucratic, Orwellian dreamscape, filled with signs and information and rules. The browns and beiges and reds of the world show its grimness, its lack of imagination. Shaun seems to be the only person that ever stops to wonder. He’s the only one with time.

I love the message that I think this book has. That it’s okay to see things or do things that nobody else seems so be seeing or doing. That making the right decision is important if you’re going to have to live with yourself. Though the Thing doesn’t speak or have any particularly animal or human qualities, Shaun has an obvious connection to it- a responsibility. It seems to all end well for the Thing, even if Shaun’s wonder might be slipping away from him.

It's simpy a wonderful book. The brilliantly accessible speech, the gorgeous, slightly dreamy illustrations, the symbols. It can mean anything you want it to mean, but the message is always encouraging the reader to be a better person. To engage and respond and make connections with things. Shaun Tan is simply brilliant- buy all his books right now.

See look; Dali and Lowry swirled together. It's grim, it's strange, it's busy.

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