Author: Shaun Tan
Publish Date: 5 Aug 2010
Publisher: Hodder Children's Books
Catalog ID: ISBN-10: 0734411375 ISBN-13: 978-0734411372
Author website: www.shauntan.net/
Review by Sheila Ngoc Pham
The Red Tree by Shaun Tan is categorised as a picture book, yet it’s far from being a typical children’s book in any way. There’s no particular narrative structure; it is, instead, a deep-dive exploration into emotion and metaphor. Tan depicts a surreal and retrofuturistic world, one of darkness rather than brightness, of shadows rather than light…or so it seems. The world of The Red Tree is a place of aching and awe-inspiring beauty both foreign and familiar. The recognisable elements of our own world—streetscapes, seascapes, skyscapes—are seen through completely different eyes.
Tan’s work is informed by a love of comics, with the borders of the pages themselves serving as enlarged frames for the scenes within. The fact it was recently adapted for the stage shows just how rich the source material is, that a 30-odd page book with limited text could inspire a 75-minute music theatre production.
One way of reading this book is seeing it as a depiction of depression. Tan’s graphic rendering is an attempt to chart the complex mental, physical and emotional terrain of a state we might otherwise diagnose as a clinical condition. He demonstrates how loneliness and depression can be overwhelming and even endless, zooming right in to the finite details.
Upon opening the cover, the first thing we see is a tiny five-pointed leaf that’s barely perceptible against the dark backdrop. Falling leaves are a recurring motif throughout, black and red in turn, with the red leaf a defining symbol. Standing in a field we see a grandfather-like clock with no numbers, just black leaves—and the hour hand hovering close to one red leaf.
“Sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to”, the text begins. We see a red-headed girl sitting up in bed looking glum as black leaves fall about her bedroom. Tan describes her as “a stand-in for ourselves“. By the next page, the leaves engulf the room completely, “and things go from bad to worse.”
Reading the book, I recalled what Keats wrote of autumn, “thou hast thy music too.” It’s a sentiment Tan appreciates given the autumnal mood of this book. So on one hand, the dessicated and dying leaves of autumn can bury us; on the other hand, the red leaves possess immense beauty, even hope, revealing something important about the nature of being. After all, these leaves are yielded by the tree of one’s own life.
Letters and words are used throughout in intriguing ways. There are, of course, the words which accompany the illustrations but the letters as well as words become objects in themselves, incomprehensible and fragmented, muddled and inexplicable. There is English and Chinese and mathematics, among other glyphs. One particularly dense and immense double page spread features tones of black, red and yellow. It mimics a collage that is gestalt, composed of found texts and newspapers and ephemera like stamps and maps. These separate pieces have been cut up and pasted together.
Towards the end of the book are the words, “but suddenly there it is right in front of you / bright and vivid / quietly waiting…” My newly acquired copy of The Red Tree once belonged to a poet named Ramon Loyola, who died unexpectedly earlier this year. Somehow it seemed important to review this book to honour his own existential struggles, which I mostly glimpsed through his poetry as we met so seldom. I can only imagine how he saw Tan’s book but clearly he was a fan, as he owned other books by Tan as well. I know he would have agreed that there are times when words alone simply can’t convey the enormity of those long dark nights—and days—of the soul; but perhaps this sublime work by Tan comes close.
About the reviewer: Sheila Ngoc Pham is a PhD candidate at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation at Macquarie University. She completed an Erasmus Mundus Master of Bioethics in 2014 and her thesis focused on graphic medicine. She adapted it for radio and it was broadcast on Ockham’s Razor, ABC Radio National: How comic books can improve healthcare (link to podcast)