The Arrival by Shaun Tan [Review]

The Arrival (2007)


Shaun Tan


Immigrating somewhere far away from everything you know and love, to e place that is foreign in all aspects is an unimaginably difficult task that often if not always rises out of necessity – the desperate need for a better and more secure life, a one-way ticket to self-exploration and inner peace, the escape from the dreadful reaches of war.

“The Arrival” explores the struggles of immigration through the heartbreaking story of a man parting from his wife and daughter as he boards a steamship across the ocean to find a better future for the three of them.

Very intimately through Shaun Tan’s brilliant imagination and gorgeous pencil art we are invited to observe the man’s exploration, his experience and struggles as he lands in an unknown land of impossible proportions and architecture without the knowledge of the language and understanding of the local customs.

It’s maybe hard for some people to imagine that culture shock and instant barrier for probably the most important of tools anyone can have in a foreign land – words, language. Especially if said language has none and uses symbols, shapes and geometry instead. Then it becomes impossible to navigate without a true to the source reference.

The very important look and style of The Arrival come into play here. I was truly hooked from the first panel because the art style is simply gorgeous and the emotions evoked through it are resting on such a wide specter. Animals inhabiting the strange new land have so much personality and charm and I’m a huge sucker of a good side-kick, companion pet.

      Harbour’ pencil on paper by Shaun Tan

It’s an altogether different type of graphic novel, very different from the ones I’m used to read – in order to tell the story, Tan cleverly strips all words away and at first I was a bit worried whether I would understand what’s happening or will be completely lost in translation, but Tan presents each panel carefully, taking time and slots to follow a complete and detailed narrative. That way our experience can be as equal as that of the main character.

And as he cannot communicate with the symbol language of the megalopolis, so can’t  we as the readers. We are forbidden that luxury and so understand the isolation that builds for the man so far away from home. We begin learning with him, growing in this world and slowly becoming part of it. We are left with wordless art that speaks volumes.

Suddenly we are able to experience joy just like the main character does because even if the place is difficult to grasp and navigate it isn’t that much foreign when you look closely. How many more were on that steam ship coming to this new land? How many have come before?

We do meet some of them. Without a shared language they have shared stories intersected by their necessity to leave and their decision to do it. With the sharing of food and music they do communicate and tell their own stories in individual panels that address child labor and war. But as the last square in panel of their arc drives them away from that past life and into this city of acceptance and colorful nationalities, it also communicates happiness and hope. For them and for our main character it’s a new chance to be alive and to have a future. One hurdle at a time.

“The Arrival” is an important graphic novel; it’s an important story deriving its topic from historical facts from the 1800 and 1900 hundreds through to today.  And it’s probably one of the most beautifully drawn ones I’ve read. I say read for a lack of a better word. Experienced? It could be both – you can read it, read through the expressions, the faces, the buildings, the symbols, the interactions. And you can experience it just from the viewpoint of the main character as he stumbles in isolation and exploration, wordless through to his joy and embracing of the world.

What I can do is implore you to read The Arrival if you haven’t. Tan comes from a family of immigrants himself and you can read more about that influencing him and this book on his website, but just know that The Arrival tells real stories of real people regardless of its fantastical world.

Actual stories of immigrants are incorporated into the story whether indirectly or not. By all its means, it’s a way to represent true fates, true events that transpired and made an impact. You can learn that just by seeing the spreads filled with portraits of so many people.

I hope I at least spark someone’s curiosity to go and check the story for themselves in whatever format you prefer. Because it is worth it.


*Images used belong to the sole creator of the work.


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