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The Arrival h/c

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The Arrival h/c back

Shaun Tan


Page 45 Review by Stephen

This isn’t quite how I now sell this book on our shop floor, partly because THE ARRIVAL is a treasure trove of narrative devices unique to this medium, and exploring those requires either the book in front of you or more precise interior art than I could find online. Teaching this in-depth in schools is one of my favourite things in the world!

However, here’s a substantial rewrite of what I came up with a lifetime ago...

Truly a book of wonders, this is a silent tale rendered in subtle but telling tones from the cold grey of loneliness, bewilderment and despair, through period-piece sepia to a bright, burnished bronze which will lift your heart and make your soul sing!

It's a voyage of discovery both for the book's reader and its protagonist, who must reluctantly leave behind his sparsely decorated home, his soft-handed wife and their quietly anxious daughter, for there is something gravely wrong with their homeland. A serpent’s tail, sharp with spines, snakes through the narrow streets between dilapidated, tall, terraced housing, casting its shadow across windows, blotting out the light.

Now, you could take that to be fantastical or metaphorical, the monstrous yet relatively anonymous intrusion into the people’s lives cleverly signifying anything from the oppression of tyrants to disease, famine or war. Whatever the affliction, our husband and father must bid his loved ones a tearful but dignified, final farewell, their hands slipping painfully from his grasp, along with all that is familiar to him.

He sits alone in a tiny cabin amongst so many within the giant iron ocean which is in turn dwarfed by the vast, open seas it crosses. The journey takes forever. A second double-page spread of multiple panels looking up into the varied cloud formations indicates the many long days and nights that pass, their fluctuating tones reflecting the man’s shifting moods. It is emphatically not a pleasure cruise, his fellow travellers huddling under blankets up on deck, but there are moments of wonder as shoals of white flying fish soar in the sky.

When they arrive, the skyline is recognisably that of post-war, monumentalist America, land of the immigrant. But beyond the docks, the interminable, cattle-like queues and the cold, clinical and physically invasive medical processing, the city is daunting both in scale and in its alien aspect. It is a maze of strangely shaped buildings and monuments made no more navigable by maps, for the language there is composed of symbols indecipherable both to us and our protagonist. Even the methods of transport are unfathomable. The customs are equally curious and the animals unknown: which are food, which are treasured pets? Even the time is told differently, and you cannot help but fear and feel for the man who has nowhere to go, knows not what to do and can only communicate with drawings. Oh, for the kindness of strangers!

Slowly, however, in tentative steps, the man discovers that he isn't alone: that there are others who've moved here before him, each to escape the horrors of their homeland, who introduce him to the spectacle and traditions of their adopted country in all its fantastical glory.

Shaun Tan has crafted a perfect impression of just how daunting an experience seeking asylum must be: the sense of complete isolation, loneliness, and most of all helplessness after leaving your loved ones behind in the desperate hope of being united later on. That's why there are no words: without them to guide you through the narrative, you are artfully locked into the same lack of comprehension as the husband and father is, compelled to share his plight of interpreting what lies in front of him.

It's thoroughly absorbing and very affecting: a great big book of empathy for your fellow human being.

It’s also the most eloquent rebuttal to the ignorant, thoughtless xenophobia so prevalent right now, the fear-mongering bigotry of the Daily Mail and the vile, knee-jerk nationalism of right-leaning Little Britain.

Breathtaking in its imagination and beauty – the snow-white flying fish, the sun-dial skies, and the life-cycle of a tiny, miraculous flower – THE ARRIVAL is quite remarkable in every way, and certainly my book of the year.

[Editor’s note: Shaun Tan gives an equally eloquent interview on race, identity and growing up biracial / bicultural here: