The arrival by Shaun Tan

cover image

Hachette, 2014. ISBN 9780734415868
(Age: All) Highly recommended. Immigration, Refugees, Loneliness. A stranger arrives in a strange land, leaving behind his wife and daughter until he can send for them. He is one of many, moving like robots through the immigration centre, finding work which casts him in the same anonymous role. Tan shows clearly through this wordless book, the disorientation of the new arrival, his efforts to fit in, to assimilate, his search for work and lodgings. Each page shows a strange language, impelling the readers to empathise with the migrant, lost in an unknown and unfriendly city.
Tan's sepia drawings, looking like old photographs, encapsulate the isolation of the new arrival. Repeated images of dislocation, disorientation, loneliness and sorrow are found throughout the book, the end papers having all of humanity shown in passport like pictures staring at the reader.
The story is divided into six chapters, the first following the man leaving, packing his suitcase while his wife and daughter accompany him to the ship which will take him away. He is then found amongst many others making that journey, sending letters like birds home to their families. Next he is seen talking to others who have their own stories of dislocation, sharing their experiences. The fourth shows the work he is able to get, and his mind drifts into the reasons he left, while the last chapter shows a positive future for the family as those left behind prepare to follow. In between we see snippets of those he befriends, people who share his experiences and help him along his journey, with the darker tones of some illustrations reflect the trauma of some of their stories. The image early in the book of the man seeing his family in his suitcase is haunting (one amongst many). Tan reprises some iconic images of migration, and the use he makes of the unusual animal and the engineering works all add another level of thought and discussion. There are images to share, images to ponder, and above all to read and reread, gaining more from each viewing. A New Arrivals class at Richmond Primary School pondered over this book for weeks, taking it home, sharing it with their parents and other members of their class. They spoke of it with recognition: some children were from refugee camps, some from detention centres, while some had arrived by plane. But they all had one thing in common, being a new arrival in an alien land, and that Shaun Tan has shown with incredible dexterity. This group of young people all found themselves and their families in the faces in the endpapers, their reasons for leaving their own country in some of the stories shown. In a classroom, this book could be used as an introduction to the theme of immigration, of difference, of starting again, of refugees, of the nature of picture books, or looking at an illustrator's skill.
This book won accolades around the world when first published: CBCA Picture book of the year in 2007, NSW Premier's Award, 2007, WA Premier's Prize, 2007, ABBA award 2007, Best Album Award, France, 2007.
To see it republished in a smaller, softcover edition reminds us again of Tan's prodigious talents, and the need for books such as these to be placed in front of readers of all ages.
When asked if this was about the refugee debate in today's Australia, he responded,
'If The Arrival contributes to a public discussion at all, it would be in reminding us that these issues are more than just passing fodder for politicians and media.'
This book soars as it reflects all of our beginnings.
Fran Knight