Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > The Arrival

The Arrival by Shaun Tan
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's review
Sep 25, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: 2012, graphic-novel, fantasy, speculative-fiction, favourite, picture-book, childrens, cover-love
Read in September, 2012

This is one of the most beautiful, amazing, clever, brilliant, gorgeous, splendid, awesome books ever - truly it is impossible to stick to just one adjective when describing this book.

The Arrival is a graphic novel told only in illustrations, incredibly detailed pencil sketch illustrations that are as vivid as photographs - indeed, some are modelled on actual historical photos. The story, told in "snapshots" or in large, full-spread drawings, is about a man who leaves his wife and young daughter as something ominous spreads through the land - the stirrings of war, perhaps, or something worse. He travels across the ocean to a new land, where everything is strange and foreign and new. No one understands him and he struggles to understand them, but they are friendly people, the ones he meets - immigrants too, with their own stories of fleeing horror - and he makes friends. Time passes, and after the winter he has saved enough money to send for his family, and once together they have a real home (home is where the heart, or family, is, right?).

Summarised like that, it sounds rather ordinary, but this book is anything but. Between the subtle body language and details in the individual pictures that speak louder than paragraphs of narration would, and the fantastical new wonders of the safe land, there is so much going on here that you could read it a hundred times and never get bored with it.

The Arrival records a universal immigrant experience, though, as an Australian, it did make me think of all the Europeans who came by boat after WWII, who arrived in Sydney Harbour to find a place completely different to the one they left, right down to the birds and animals and trees (and in fact it was partly inspired by Tan's father who emigrated from Malaysia to Western Australia). The way everything is so strange to the man, from the new alphabet to new ways of doing things, is familiar and recognisable, and if you've never been an immigrant to a very different country, this will give you the perspective to truly understand what it's like for them.

Tan achieves a perfect balance between scary and depressing (the visions, stories and memories of what people have escaped - genocide, war, exploitation), and hopeful and scary-wondrous. Everything from the food and animals to the writing and architecture is incredibly different from what the immigrants knew before - and different to us, as well, creating that same sensation in us as the immigrant characters have. Nothing is as it seems to be at first glance: understanding is confined to whatever connection you can make to something in your own head, based on your own understanding of the world.

In this way, Tan has created something quite brilliant, using art to not only vividly and empathetically portray the experience of arriving in a new land, but has used art in such a way that every reader will be able to empathise with the characters, even though you may not have anything at all in common with them. We all know art can transcend barriers and create bridges, and speaks in all languages: Tan's The Arrival exemplifies this. He communicates so much without using words, it's breath-taking.

This is a book not to be missed. It made me cry, with that ache in my chest that I always get these days when I hear stories of sweet, remarkable, simple, ordinary but life-changing things (some things can be all of those things!). It's the kind of story that reaffirms your positive feelings towards your fellow humans, and reminds you to have more patience with people who don't speak your language so well, and can't understand what to you are the simplest things - not because they are stupid, but just because it's new and/or different.

One final note: this is published by an imprint of Scholastic, which publishes children's and YA, and Tan typically produces picture books (of equally breath-taking quality). Children would definitely enjoy this, and you may find it only in the Children's section of a bookshop or library. But it is a book that defies age, and different age groups would get different experiences from it - each just as valid, none of them "wrong", and all enriching. My advice: splurge on the gorgeous hardcover, because this is a book you're going to treasure for ever and ever.
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Reading Progress

04/28 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Lisa Vegan Shannon, Wonderful, wonderful review, and thanks for including the pictures for reminding me of how special this book really is.

message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

It's one of the best books I've ever seen.

message 3: by B0nnie (new) - added it

B0nnie Amazing! what lovely pictures. It reads like a silent movie.

Shannon (Giraffe Days) B0nnie wrote: "Amazing! what lovely pictures. It reads like a silent movie."

Yes! It does, but without the exaggerated body language! ;)

R.S. Carter Beautiful review. Spot on.

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