RULES OF SUMMER By Shaun Tan
Summer has always been the season of adventure – the days seem longer, darkness comes late and time feels less demanding. In Shaun Tan’s latest picture book, summer is also the season of discovery as two boys embark on a quest that either takes place in their own small, suburban world, or in another world entirely.
This is just one of the many opportunities for the reader to speculate about what may or may not be happening, as a nameless narrator passes on poetically-brief warnings about the consequences of not following certain arbitrary ”rules”, the first of which is: ”Never leave a red sock on the clothesline”.
Like most of his best-selling books (The Arrival, The Lost Thing, The Red Tree), Tan creates a new visual language with a story that begins on the cover where the boys can be seen at play in a landscape both exotic and achingly familiar. Rules of Summer poses an unending number of questions, making it both wholly original and endlessly fascinating.
While the lone red sock fails to catch a breeze, two boys crouch behind a fence as an enormous, fiery red rabbit, like a macabre animal run amok from a parade, squeezes down a back lane, a pink eye scanning the scene. The image first appeared in Tan’s The Bird King and other Sketches, and it’s interesting to note the changes the original work has undergone in this new setting.
In ”Never step on a snail”, a tornado bears down on an ordinary street on a cloudless day, and in ”Never give your keys to a stranger”, one boy watches television with a giant cat, while another peers through the window. Locked out? Too scared to come in? And what about the bird that appears on almost every page? Harbinger of doom, a talisman? Are the boys brothers or friends? There are no facts, only the answers you create.
About halfway through the book, the tone changes. ”Never ask for a reason” features the boys fighting as a group of creatures that appeared in earlier pages looks on. Tan’s pallet turns from blazing reds and yellows to smoky greys with ”Never wait for an apology”, which shows the younger boy, alone in a bunker surrounded by a menacing flock of black birds. An ordeal of some sort has taken place.
Visually, Rules of Summer shares its DNA with The Lost Thing, in which empty fields or blue patches of sky inevitably bump into a smoke stack, a nameless factory or an industrial wasteland on the suburban fringe.
Despite the incongruous nature of many of the images, there remains a vein of recognition throughout the book and when read on an emotional level, the characters aren’t nearly as aimless as they first appear: friendship, fear, adventure, that moment when you realise you’ve suddenly strayed from the familiar into the foreign – are all exquisitely rendered.
Rules of Summer is about superstition and the consequences, real and imagined, that come with the territory that is childhood. For older readers – anyone who isn’t considered a child – the book offers countless interpretations and layers that will make each encounter memorable.
■ Frances Atkinson blogs at slightlyfoxed1968.wordpress.com
This review first appeared in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, 16th November, 2013.