The Arrival

Author and artist: Shaun Tan

Type: Fiction, comic

Published: 2006

I read it: August 2016


Here’s another graphic novel I saw sitting around at camp, this time as part of a Stories Without Words activity, in which the kids basically drew wordless comics. I’d actually had The Arrival on my TBR shelf for a long time, but I’ll take whatever serendipitous reason I can to actually get around to reading a book.

And this is a short one, to be sure. In fact, it may be the first completely wordless book I’ve read. Because of that it’s hard to pace myself and take in the imagery. I did go through it twice just to give it the attention it deserved, although I think it would make a greater impact after being read many more times.

The wordlessness itself is not just an interesting exercise or experiment, but fits in exactly with the immigration story the author is trying to tell. The nameless protagonist leaves his homeland and family behind and arrives at a mysterious yet welcoming new city. There is language on the walls and billboards, but it is hieroglyphic in its strangeness. He interacts with others through gestures, drawings, and confusion.

Delivered in varying hues of gray, black, and tan (I see what you did there, Shaun), several scenes evoke real-world experiences, such as a lonely ship crossing a great ocean under an oppressive storm cloud. Other scenes seem to be something out of Escher, with slightly twisted geometry making the familiar seem off-kilter, and a host of fantastical pets that seem way more abundant than in our world. Or perhaps the story is a snapshot of a lost past, in which traveling would be truly an unknown experience, and maybe you really would see a completely alien animal scurry out of a wicker basket. But today, it seems we’d be at least partially primed by screen representations of our destinations long before arriving.

It may be a cliche descriptor, but “timeless” comes to mind when reading The Arrival. When “reading” it? When experiencing it, I suppose.


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