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The Arrival by Shaun Tan

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kellyr

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The Arrival by Shaun Tan is a story without words. It's a picture book for teens. It's a graphic novel inside hard covers. All of these statements are correct, and none of them are true.

The Arrival is an experience unto itself.

Imagine that you needed to leave wherever it is you live (for most readers of this blog the U.S., Canada, Australia or the U.K.), for whatever reason occurs to you (to escape war, seek a better life, etc.), and you must move far away to another country you've never seen before. One where you don't speak or read the language much, if at all. Preferably one where they use a different alphabet.  You pack whatever belongings will fit into one suitcase. Maybe your spouse helps. Inside that suitcase is a picture of your family and whatever you've scraped together to take with you.

You leave your family behind to travel abroad. You arrive in a land where nothing looks familiar to you. Not the monuments or the buildings or the signs. Everything at the port where you arrive by ship is a mystery, a puzzle, and a huge, busy bustle.

You struggle to deal with the bureaucrats. To find housing. To find work. Along the way you meet other immigrants who share their stories: where they came from, what and why they left. You make mistakes, you make friends. You learn to adjust to foreign words and foreign foods. And maybe, if you're lucky, you get to bring your family over to join you.

Shaun Tan peoples his world with people from a variety of races, and shows back stories for a number of them that explain their differing experiences. The images of war have the possibility of being confusing to some readers (oversized men with flame throwers advance on a town that rises to their knees; other soldiers march off to war and the next page is nothing but skeletons), but they convey the confusion and senselessness of it far more clearly (on an emotional level) than a more classic depiction might. The use of odd-looking pets was in the new world was the one thing that kept making me wonder if I was going to reach the end to find out that there'd been an alien invasion or something, but other than that I was dazzled by the artwork.

I'm not usually a fan of textless books, but in this case the absence of words helps the reader to identify with the main character's isolation and sense of otherness/foreign-ness. I can't decide what to call this one: picture book for older readers? (B&N has it shelved in the YA section, whereas The Wall by Peter Sís is on the picture book wall; I take issue with the placement of both) Graphic novel? No clue. In a year of hybrids like The Wall and the magnificent The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, it's just one more for the "excellent book in an unclear category" pile.

Decidedly worth a look.

ETA: This review was taken almost verbatim from my blog post on October 30, 2007.
#1 - November 04, 2007, 09:49 AM
« Last Edit: November 04, 2007, 09:58 AM by kellyr »

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