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Book Review: The Arrival by Shaun Tan

The thing I really like about graphic novels is that you can usually read them in less than an hour. There are notable exceptions, of course, such as Alan Moore's The Watchmen. But most of the time, they read fast. I finally gave The Arrival a viewing, and it's quite an intriguing read.

The problem with describing it is that it's wordless. Much of the content is up to the viewer. You can make a guess as to what is happening or what is represented. Then, in about a year, you could look at it again and have a new take.

From what I can tell, this is the story of an immigrant that comes to a new land. We don't know why, only that he decides to pack up his bags and travel to a new home. He leaves a spouse and a daughter behind with great sadness. You can tell this parting brings them all pain. You can tell because of the drawings Shaun Tan made. Each one is packed with emotional punch.

I can only assume the immigrant is coming to America, although you wouldn't know it at first glance. To give us a sense of what it must be like for an immigrant, Tan creates a world in which nothing makes sense. There are strange symbols, pets, and foods. As the people on the boat arrive at the dock, they don't see the Statue of Liberty. Instead, they see a statue of two men shaking hands. On their shoulders are two animals, and one man holds a fruit. This is Tan's stroke of genius. He allows us to feel what immigrants must feel when they enter a strange country. No words are readable; no speech can be understood. Every vision is unfamiliar and sometimes scary. The man must use crude drawings he makes to communicate his needs for shelter or food.

We follow this man around as he tries to make sense of his new home. The reader will have many questions. For instance, why are there dragon scales following the man as he leaves his home? Why does he see the creature that follows him around as an alien baby? Is this because to immigrants, dogs and cats would not be common pets? What are the spaceships flying around supposed to represent? Buses? Planes?

I suppose that Tan could be going for a non-literal translation. In other words, maybe every item viewed on the pages isn't supposed to represent a counterpart that would be identifiable in America. Maybe the spaceships just represent transportation, and the alien creature just represents another life form, rather than a literal dog or cat.

The drawings are certainly beautiful, and readers will enjoy following the man's story. This is recommended for all ages.


Anonymous said…
I feel like you're trying to make the interpretation of this book a bit too literal. Keep in mind that the author's parents emigrated to Australia from Southeastern Asia and he has never lived in the United States (visit his website for more on how he conceived the book).

The emotions portrayed in this book are so much important than the concretes. It's so much about the universal experience of fleeing to a new country from some danger (unspecified in the protagonist's case) and the feeling of utter lostness of not understanding the language or public transit or native foods or lifestyle of your new country. Having to take a mind-numbing factory job because of inability to prove your skills through the language barrier. And gradually adapting.

It's a beautiful book; I read this one several times a day for a straight week once I got my hands on it. It broke my heart to return it to the library; I'll have to buy my own someday!
Lindsey said…
Hi Melanie,
I agree with you, and that is what I think I said above when I mentioned that it is possible the author intends a non-linear interpretation. It could not be America. I only suggest this because of the melting pot of cultures the protagonist meets. But yes, the themes are universal.
MotherReader said…
I kept trying to make everything a literal translation, to my own frustration. I came to know that everything wasn't standing in for something else - the alien baby for a cat, for instance - but I couldn't stop my mind from trying to make the connections. It's certainly one interesting book.

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