The Lost Thing - Shaun Tan
Lothian, August 2000, hc, 32pp, $24.95
Cover by Shaun Tan. ISBN 0-7344-0074-8
Review by Jonathan Strahan

Writer/illustrator Shaun Tan has garnered an impressive reputation in the past three years, winning Australia's prestigious Children's Book Council Picture Book of the Year once and being runner-up twice. His fourth picture book, The Lost Thing, is the first written by Tan, and is easily the most impressive.

Subtitled "A Tale For Those Who Have More Important Things to Pay Attention To", The Lost Thing is a gentle rumination on how, distracted by the demands of adulthood and modern life, we lose the ability to appreciate the magic around us as we age. The book opens with the narrator riding on a tram at rush hour, offering to tell the only good story he still remembers (he used to know a lot of funny ones, but he's forgotten them) in order to pass the time. The story he tells is about a trip to the beach in search of bottle-tops for his collection, and how he noticed a lost-looking thing—an enormous red creature that looks like a cross between a steam kettle and a hermit crab—sitting on the sand. The only person on the beach who notices the lost thing, he spends the day playing with it, before deciding to take it home. While his friend Pete thinks its cool, and his parents don't even notice it, he realizes the need to take it somewhere and decides to respond to a newspaper ad placed by the Federal Department of Odds and Ends offering to provide a place for things that don't fit.

The images that Tan has created to accompany his story are enchanting. The narrator's world is an industrialized one, with heavy industrial pipework everywhere, strange machines filling all sorts of strange evolutionary niches, bleak skies overlooking concrete streets, and inspirational messages on billboards like "Today is the tomorrow you were promised yesterday." It is a world filled with a daunting level of detail, from an overwhelming array of government bureaucracies to newspapers, odd department stores, and the need to study for Applied Industrial Algebra finals. It is a world of muted colors—grays, rust tones, and sepia—which reflect the muted feel of the story and underscore its message. And if Tan's ability to convey the detail of his world is impressive, his knowledge of art is daunting. He almost offhandedly pastiches the works of Jeffrey Smart, Edward Hopper and John Brack, as well as giving a nod to the design work done for Terry Gilliam's Brazil and Gerald Scarfe's work on Pink Floyd's The Wall, while managing to bring his own distinctive and coherent vision to The Lost Thing. Tan also carefully maintains a dialogue between word and image that is best reflected in the sepia page backgrounds which, made from cut up pages from physics and engineering textbooks, reveal the most basic structure of the narrator's world, and in the pieces of text buried in the backgrounds which occasionally float out of the artwork, underscoring an image or part of the story.

The Lost Thing is a stunning achievement where Tan has neatly combined art and text into a seamless narrative of great power. On the back cover an inspector from the Federal Department of Censorship says The Lost Thing is "no perceptible threat to the order of day to day existence. Inconsequential. Safe for public consumption." He is wrong. If there is one book that you need to own this year, and one that any small people around you need to see, this is it.

Shaun Tan's The Lost Thing
(August 2000)
© 2000 Jonathan Strahan
This review originally appeared in Locus, October 2000
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