THE ARRIVAL conjures up images of immigrants standing in line at Ellis Island, filled with hope and awe at this country and the potential that awaits. But that picture is filtered through the lens of fantasy and magic in Shaun Tan’s delightful wordless story.
THE ARRIVAL works on so many levels that it’s hard to peg it to just one. Perhaps at its heart it is a children’s tale, an illustrated epic easy to follow along in pictures. But the idea of loss --- from the opening montage of a man leaving his family behind while he goes off in search of something new in a foreign land --- and the emotion behind it will resonate more with adults. Tan, whose previous works include the excellent THE RED TREE and THE LOST THING, gives life to his protagonist’s fears and trepidations through a rich symbolism invented in the artwork: shadows, lettering, strange creatures. What it all means adds up to the fear of the unknown every stranger in a strange land faces. What lies around any given corner may be amazing opportunity or danger…and there’s no way to find out until you make the journey.
That kind of uncertainty is depicted in the odd-looking little creature who greets the protagonist in this new land (shown on the cover). Is it a friendly type of dog or some vicious animal?
Tan’s gift for creating shading and depth gives each image a lush, 3D quality, and he even creates playful, moving connotations by arranging the panels of the book’s opening like a photo album, complete with slightly rounded corners. They look almost taped into place. The reader reminisces about generations gone by, parents, grandparents, or even further back into history, to think of the many heartbreaking ways people leave their families behind in search of a new life and an opportunity to create a new family elsewhere.
Every one of Tan’s images is a story unto itself, so words are hardly necessary here. What would they add to, say, the delicate rendering of the young girl regarding the protagonist’s suitcase on the morning he is about to leave? The picture alone conveys everything that needs to be said.
THE ARRIVAL is one of those works that withstands repeated readings well. There’s always something new or unexpected to be encountered, something you missed the last time around. It never loses that sense of magic and wonder, either.
Reviewed by John Hogan on October 1, 2007