The Arrival

On Tuesday I had breakfast with Shaun Tan. He brought along the proofs of his new book The Arrival for me to see. I had ten or twenty minutes to take in one hundred and twenty eight pages of graphic novel, four years of work, literally hundreds of images ranging in size from a postage stamp to full double page spreads. There was everything from small images of clouds through to sweeping cityscapes. It was breathtaking, but too much to take in.

Shaun promised to send a disk over with a copy of the book on it, but I was still surprised when it showed up in the post yesterday afternoon. I loaded it onto the laptop and spent a good part of last night pouring over the images, reading every page, every image carefully, trying to take in what Shaun was attempting with this rich ambitious work.

Rendered in black and white or sepia and without any explanatory text, the story of The Arrival is a simple one, but one that has enormous depth. At it’s most straightforward, The Arrival is an migrant story, one that could fit readily into any age. A man, a father and husband, leaves his family to travel to a new country. He intends to find work, make a home, get a job and earn enough money to send for his family so they can make a new life together in a place that doesn’t have the problems that trouble the place they are leaving.

Shaun tells the main story clearly and well. It’s impossible not to be swept along by his narrative imagery, while also being captivated by the world he builds (which is both exactly like, and nothing like, our own). I found myself wondering what this creature or that object was, whether something in a cityscape was public art or some building of unknown purpose. More than anything, though, I was struck by how it must have felt to live in an age without mass communications, where a country on the other side of the world could be so completely different, so out of context, that it would seem altogether alien, however beautiful and beguiling. There were times when I found myself wanting text to go with some of the artwork. Not because I didn’t understand what was going on in the image, but because I wanted more, I craved more context.

I’ve no doubt The Arrival will offer up a lot more on repeated readings, and I can’t wait to see the final book, but I am sure of this: The Arrival is Shaun’s masterwork, his best and most ambitious work to date. I think it’s also his most personal work too. That may be because he’s obviously the model for the lead character in the book, or because there’s an image of him as a small child in the rows of faces of immigrants that grace the book’s endpapers, or it may just be because the story seems that way to me. Regardless, I look forward to spending many more hours engrossed in this wonderful book.