Written by Shaun Tan
Reviewed by Mekala Trout
The Arrival, a graphic novel by Shaun Tan, is the story of an unnamed immigrant finding his way in a strange new country until he can bring his family to their new home. While there are no words in The Arrival Tan uses his art to show the state of the protagonist’s home country and his reasons for leaving. Tan uses colors, lines, and angles to draw dramatic differences between the two countries.
The protagonist’s home country is drawn in darker shades of gray than his new country. While the inside of his home is personalized, the outside world is incredibly uniform and blank as if the town had been speedily built. The inside of the protagonist’s home is extremely battered looking. His tea set and the walls are cracked, and the wood of the table is rough as it is handmade. When the protagonist and his family exit their home, it looks like they do not even have a door. Overall, Tan suggests that the protagonist comes from a very poor country.
He starkly contrasts the protagonist’s plain looking homeland with the intricate and whimsical art of the new country. The very structured home country is full of straight, proportionate lines whereas the new country is characterized by rounded edges and circles. Another difference between the first country and the new is the amount of life. In the old country the protagonist’s family are the only living things we see. The new country is the opposite. It not only teems with people, but also strange and friendly animals. People talk, play music, and run small businesses on the streets. The new country is not a place of fear.
Tan’s art also implies that the protagonist comes from a post-war country. Tan draws large tentacle-like arms snaking around buildings as the protagonist and his family walk to the train station. The combination of hastily built housing, the protagonist’s sparse, battered belongings, and the menacing tentacles that do no real harm suggest the protagonist’s home is suffering from the lingering effects of war. This interpretation is backed up by the stories of the other immigrants the protagonist befriends.
The protagonist meets other immigrants, whose heads are also full of memories rendered in visions; for instance, he befriends an elderly man who fought in a war. As the elderly immigrant tells his story it becomes clear he is haunted by visions of death. One of his memories is a field of skeletons, and later a memory of hobbling through a decimated town. It is likely that this war is the same war or a precursor to the war the immigrant couple lived through.
Tan creates a story that shows how war effects a country even years after the war is over. He also pays tribute to immigrants who left their countries in search of better lives, and he does this without ever writing a word. He uses color, lines, and angles to show the protagonist’s journey from ‘stranger in a new land’ to ‘an immigrant in a new home.’
This graphic look into the past is, in many ways, far more powerful than words. It suggests that we often have no idea of the inner landscape of others, their history, their fears, many realized more fully than we can imagine. This story without words is well worth your time.
Mekayla Trout is a student at MTSU who loves to read and is majoring in English. She plans to pursue an MA in Children's Literature and eventually would like to be a published author. She also sometimes reviews books for Sacred Chickens!