The other day I found myself in the mood for a graphic novel or two. Having just tackled Franz Kafka's 'The Trial', I wanted something a bit more easily digestible. Down at the library, they had a book sale on, and I picked this up for a couple of pounds. I broke the golden rule of choosing books - my purchase was based entirely on the appeal of the strange frog/mouse/cat thing on the front. Thankfully I wasn't punished for my shallow judgement.
'The Arrival' is a graphic novel in the most literal sense of the word. Shaun Tan has created his story entirely out of artwork, eschewing speech bubbles and even the minimal descriptive text that normally accompanies graphic novels. Drawing inspiration from silent movies, Tan constructs his narrative with beautifully rendered drawings, which look like they were done in pen and ink. Even the colour tone is influenced by silent movies of the pre 'talkie' era, with the artwork atmospherically realised in monochrome and sepia.
The story follows an unnamed protagonist (the man on the cover looking quizzically at the frog-cat creature). For reasons that are not completely clear, he must leave his wife and child behind. The town he leaves is only shown for a frame or two, but it is evident that it is no longer safe for him, with giant, terrifying tentacles probing the streets and alleyways for him. He packs his things into a suitcase, says goodbye to them, and departs on a massive steamship for an unnamed destination.
His journey takes him to a bizarre city, where humans occupy vast buildings resembling stylised owls, or chimneys, interacting with strange mechanical contraptions. There are some utterly bizarre and charming creatures as well that populate this odd city. Sardine/bird hybrids make nests in inkwells, and owl-cats hang out in gangs on the rooftops. Tan has created a very vivid and dreamlike sense of the otherworldly and unfamiliar. Aesthetically, his drawings are like a combination of Escher and Bosch, but with a quaint charm of their own.
In order to heighten the sense of 'otherness', Tan has employed a presumably made-up language which adorns posters and buildings and billboards, with which our protagonist is clearly not familiar. It's a beautifully rendered script, crossing Greek with Arabic lettering to create an alphabet that is almost readable - perhaps it is, and there are secret messages to decode?
His adventures in the new land are that of a non-native anywhere. For anyone who has ventured abroad alone to a country with no knowledge of the language, this book will strike a deep chord. But it's appeal is not only limited to the stranger in a foregin land. For anyone hurled out of their comfort zone, this story will easy to relate to. The protagonist at first struggles to fit in, with some nice touches of humour as he gets basic tasks wrong (one strip sees him as a postman, unable to understand the strange letters and trying to deliver a parcel to a gigantic monster) then finds common ground with the natives. There are touches of poignancy as well, as the stories tell of flight from persecution and the desperation of refugees.
My first interpretation was that it was an allegory for the plight of the Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis, but I think that this is merely an inspiration for Tan's work. Its brilliance is its ability to reach to anyone, through the medium of its lovingly drawn, dreamlike artwork and its universal themes. It is also uplifting, without resorting to sentimentality or hammering its point home. It is a beautifully drawn story about loss and confusion, but also the welcoming side of humanity, where strangers find common ground and are willing to help one another. It also highlights our potential to adapt to almost any situation.
This book won't take long to 'read' (I use the word loosely, as there really isn't anything to read in there) but is well worth it. It is enigmatic, yet instantly appealing, and anyone can relate to this, from those who have moved to a new school, or the 'first day at work' feeling, to those who have found themselves alone in a foreign land.
I was a little concerned when I saw no reviews of this illustared book here. I don't blame you though, as much as I would love to tell you I had been following Tan's remarkable work for the past few years I would be lying. I simply found out about him as I glanced upon this on a 'staff recommened' stand in Waterstones during a hectic Christmas shopping trip a few months ago, only a matter of days before the 25th. Opening the book was a much needed escape - although due to being in a rush, a fleeting one - amaist a rampant hoard of shoppers fighting and scrapping though the usually calm Norwich city centre.
I knew nothing of Shaun Tan until this book, and I'm only being able to garner a few facts from the interent. He is an Austrailan illustrator in his late 30s (at the time of writing, unless he owns a time machine. It is not clearly stated either way if he does or not on wikipedia), who has many awards under his belt despite quite a small body of work. To date 5 books he has written and illustated, 10 he has illustared. He has in excess of over 50 awards and much of his work has been developed into other forms, a few plays and music perfeormances. Its fair to say each of his books hold a lot of weight - enough for each of them have a big impact on many people - readers and critics alike.
He is considered to make childrens books, but sticking him in this genre is a very constrictve and lazy way to pigeonhole him. He makes books. Good books. Children can enjoy them. Older children will like them. Adults will love them. He works mostly in black and white, phasing colour out of his work faily early on in his career. He famously labours over his work, working hard on indiviual stills and revising pieces until perfect. This really comes across as every page is full of art - not just drawings. Some are just one picture, some have a couple and some have many - you feel he delibertaly sizes the pictures to add impact to the story, much like acomic book and nothing like a childrens book.
The Arrival is Tan's forth book, released in 2006 - and it is a gem, be it a big black and white one. The book is A3 in size so its pretty big. You might struggle to find it wont fit on most book shelves but you will easily forgive that as soon as you begin moving through the book.
The story is of immigration, told in an emotional and weirdly wonderful way - and totally silent. The book is wordless but is very vocal in spirit.
The book starts off with an obvious narrative in mind - a man leaves his family to look for work to support them. Leaving isn't something he wants to do and the reader can feel this, to the point its a heart tugging. The story builds pace and mood with some stunning pictures - bold, breathtaking and plain brilliant. Some imagaes fill the A3 page - a memorable one of the ship carrying the man away. A small ship sits in a huge ocean with a epic cloud overhead. Its an image you need to see. Maybe I don't have the chops, maybe words just can't describe how this image makes you feel. He really brings across the daunt that must accomny leaving you loved ones to take on a strange new land. The first half follows this vibe - using brilliant images to tell a heartbreaking story. Then about halfway through he interject an amaple serving a wonderment. Its also at this time the story changes up. Up until now it is fairly easy to follow - children will be able to tell whats going on. When the man arrives in the new land to start his new life it all gets very fantastical. The land is full of machines and monsters that the man doesn't understand. They look odd, different and they don't really understand him either. This is a clever trick from Tan. He himself is an immigrent, his parents taking a trip similar to the mans in his story. Now, I don't know how it must feel to try and get on in a place you don't either understand or feel at home, but Tan takes me there. Our protagonist is confused and Tan empasises this by confusing the reader. You have to think about what the animals he has drawn could be, and what the buildings filling the landscape could be for. Are the factories, offices? Why do some of them fly?
During the second half of the book he will lose younger readers - the narritive gets too thick, but the pictures are still great to look at. I imagine even the most attention defiect child you get lost in these. Older readers will be more drawn in - pushing you away and pulling you in at the same time. You want to follow the story but you need to use your imagination to get there. During the final few pages he pulls everything together and he reavels his best trick yet - its end making a sizable punch. He works to show a side to immigrants the tabloid media hate for you to know about. Immigrants are not the drain on society many newspapers and ignorant politicans would love you think they are, they are people. People with hopes, dreams, fears and most imporantly - families. This books leaves you feeling happy for the family and you really care about them, despite only getting to know them without any words and 50 or so pages of colourless images.
I reviewed this and hope to turn people to it. Maybe its aggorant of me to assume your reading this and never heard of him - maybe you have. If you have and don't own this its a must. If you haven't, pick it up and thank me later. Its a book I am proud to have on my bookshelf, and its something I am more than eager to bust out when we have friends round - happy to introduce them to it. Its a book young and old people can enjoy for the same, and different reasons. Some pages are just brillaint on their own - I'd love to have prints of some of them to hang around the house. I'd recomend it for anyone want to real calaibe to their grapic novel collection, or for those who wan't to kick their grapic novel collection off with a bang.
At the time of wrting this book can be bought on Amazon new or used for about £8 - and is totally worth every penny.