A Review of The Arrival

Anya DunaifSeptember 14, 2018Competition and AchievementMedia

Shaun Tan’s The Arrival is a moving story about one immigrant’s journey to a strange and unknown world to build a new life for himself and his family.

The Arrival is considered a graphic novel because it is told through illustrations. But it isn’t just any graphic novel, it has no text and is full of beautiful monochrome hand-drawn pictures; pictures that generate such vivid emotions there is no need for words. In the mysterious, shadowy world that Tan has created with pencil, words would ruin the mood that the drawings create and lessen the emotions that the reader shares with the characters in the story.

On the inside cover of the book there is a gallery of many faces that seem to be staring at you, pulling you into the book. The story starts with images of many everyday objects: an origami bird, a hat, a clock, a pot, a kettle, a tea cup, a drawing made by a child, a suitcase, and a photograph of the immigrant’s family. On the next page the whole scene is displayed. Tan tends to do similar layouts throughout the book. For example, when the main character leaves his hometown, which is full of ominous shadows, he takes a ship across the ocean. There is a drawing of him close up, and then one a little farther away, and this pattern of zooming out is continued until the ship he is on is reduced to about an inch long. This perspective shows us just how small the main character is in comparison to the world.

The hero is from a world quite different from ours, but one that has similarities. In the new city, the animals are not realistic and the architecture and landscape are fantastical, yet the humans look and dress the same. His surroundings are both old fashioned and futuristic. Old boats fly in the air, but also float in water. It is a clash of eras. In this strange world of old and new, the main character competes against the other immigrants to get a job and build a life for his family, who remain in his homeland. He also goes on a voyage of self-discovery.

When the main character arrives in the new city he is unemployed. He tries desperately to get a job. He competes against the other immigrants. But he fails many times. After a while the man almost decides to give up. He does not leave his family to compete against others. He comes to the other city to build a new life for them. All he wants is for his wife and daughter to be happy. After a lot of thought he realizes that sometimes you must fail in order to achieve. And that competing is not only about winning, it is about learning from your mistakes and living your life. So once again he tries to get a job, and this time he is hired. He doesn’t only get employed; he makes friends, plays games, and learns to speak the city’s native language. By working hard the man is able to achieve in many things.

The city that the main character moves to is a puzzle, as are the book’s illustrations. As he learns about the world, so do we. When he discovers what things mean, and where things are, so do we. Not only do we watch the main character as we work with him to figure out the puzzle of his life, we feel his emotions, and those of friends he meets along the way. When the hero’s friends tell the frightening stories of their pasts we feel scared for them. When the main character stares at the picture of his wife and daughter we feel sad and want to see them again. And when the man is finally reunited with his family we, too, feel an overwhelming happiness.

Creating a profound story is not easy without words. But when looking through The Arrival you live and feel the man’s journey because of the complexity of the art. Because the story is complicated, you have to piece together the puzzle of the main character’s life, which you also have do with your own personal story, as you discover who you are and your own place in the world.

Anya Dunaif is a senior at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, New York. Her interests include visual art, film, writing, science, and languages (Mandarin, Ancient Greek, and Latin).