Shaun Tan
Arthur A. Levine Books ($19.95)

by David A. Beronä

Those who have had the experience of listening to their grandparents talk about their immigration experiences will recognize the spirit of The Arrival, Shaun Tan’s stunning wordless graphic novel. The story involves a young man who leaves his wife and daughter in their hostile homeland and embarks on a journey to a new country, where the language, food, clothing, and customs are bewildering. The young man receives directions and assistance from various people on the street, who also tell him stories about the slavery, genocide, war, and destruction they escaped from. Through a series of events, the young man slowly assimilates into the new world, finds a job, and eventually arranges travel for his wife and daughter to join him.

Every aspect of The Arrival, told in skillful pencil drawings, extends this story into a visceral experience. Picking up this book is like discovering a diary in a dusty attic: the cover recalls a tattered, leather-bound journal; the inside covers display numerous passport snapshot drawings of every race, color, age, and gender of refugee; even the blank pages between chapters are foxed with brown specks, wrinkled, and watermarked. Furthermore, the inconsistency of the page design enhances the dramatic unfolding of the narrative: various displays of small square panels suddenly open into a stunning, and sometimes frightful, full-page or two-page spread. And Tan’s use of symbols and metaphors is visually arresting, like the barbed tentacles that loom around the town the immigrant leaves, or the odd geometric shapes and peculiar objects he discovers after his arrival in the new land.

Tan, in fact, consistently blends rich naturalism with surrealistic images to heighten the visual impact of the immigration experience. Even everyday activities that seem commonplace to the other characters, like sending a letter or cooking, are displayed as off-kilter and strange to the young man. By presenting these actions and objects in this bizarre manner, Tan ingeniously places us in the shoes of his protagonist; we see through the eyes of an immigrant who eventually makes the grotesque customary and discovers the significance of family and fellowship with his neighbors.

Today, with vast numbers of refugees fleeing their homelands to places not always as inviting as the country in this book, works like The Arrival are desperately needed. Tan puts a face to the faceless immigrants and deepens our understanding of how people feel upon arriving in a land of strange new customs and habits.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2007/2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007/2008