Shaun Tan’s beautiful book, The Arrival, invites readers to experience the pain, fear, despair, longing, and ultimate hope in this intimate experience of life as an immigrant.
From the moment it is picked up and it’s weight felt in the reader’s hands, we know a profound read awaits us. Coupled with the tattered replica of an old photo album or passport as the front and back cover pages, and the strong and dense interior pages, the book itself is a work of art that looks old and wise beyond its years.
The fine pencil art, various tones of sepia, which mirror Victorian photography, captures the essence of each individual in his or her passport photo. The asynchronous items on the first page, stilled in time and through large gutters and small panels place equal importance and insignificance of what is left behind. The acute detail of husband and wife, their hands on each other, is so real and intimate to look at the tenderness feels almost intrusive.
Words in this story are unnecessary.
As the visual narrative progresses, the identical panel sizes and gutter spacing is reminiscent of an old silent film, moving quickly with small gestures as to bring them to life. The contrast of whole page images, splash pages, or blank pages reminds us we are reading and privy to only a moment in time.
The representation of corruption and power as reptilian shadows looming overhead resonates with the world we live in today. This is not the tale of immigration of days past, nor solely of the futuristic landscape created in the images, this is the timely tale of immigration as it happens, whenever it happens.
Close up drawings of physical exams, teeth checking, eye tests, the struggle to communicate, are powerful and honest statements of what immigrants endure to enter a new country. Flashbacks, rendered in darker tones, but with the same physical layout and paneling give life to secondary characters, which informs and expands the protagonist’s own personality and moves the story along. Again, the art captures what words would most often convey, but in such a delicate and seamless way that words are not required at all.
The companion animal, a futuristic pet of sorts, reminds the reader that appearances are not the foundation of a person, and that different is not necessarily frightening or bad. Likewise with the food, homes, and clothing in this new land, Tan is encouraging readers to consider that different can be good. The bird, which appears in a variety of incarnations throughout the book (at home with his daughter, upon the statue in the harbour, through the steampunk city) is the visual reminder of hope through uncertainty.
This book is exquisite and I can’t help but think that if everyone on the planet were required to read it, the world might be a better place.