BOOK REVIEW: The Arrival by Shaun Tan

Book cover image from The Arrival by Shaun Tan

By D.H. Allain

FOREWORD: The following is part of a series of reviews revisiting the past works of prominent Australian authors – authors we love, look up to, have strong opinions on, etc. – whose works endure through time and hold relevance in today’s world.

If you cast your mind back to 2006, then Prime Minister John Howard was celebrating ten years in office. Some predicted his reign would never end. It was his insistence that there were an ‘uncontrollable number of illegal arrivals’ that ushered in decades of xenophobic border policies. 

In his carefully constructed graphic narrative, Shaun Tan sensitively depicts one such arrival. With an established career as an illustrator following the success of The Lost Thing and The Rabbits, Tan’s work in The Arrival would become one of his most celebrated works after winning Book of the Year in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in 2007. The story follows a shape familiar to anyone who has been desperate enough to leave one life behind in search of safety: an ominous threat which forces the protagonist to leave their loved ones behind, an arduous journey, the pain of trying to establish a new life in a new nation, until eventually he is a local coming to the aid of new arrivals. 

However, the single journey of Tan’s unnamed protagonist is portrayed as a stand-in for the strength and struggle of millions. By bookending his story with photorealistic portraits of refugees from across the globe, Tan implies that the migrant experience is both diverse and universal. When interviewed about the book, Tan, the son of a migrant from Malaysia, reflected that ‘in Australia, people don’t stop to imagine what it is like for some of these refugees. They just see them as a problem once they’re here.’ 

Therein lies the genius of Tan’s work, as he turns his inquisitive gaze not on the stranger, but on the strangeness of his new society. Drawing inspiration from photographs of Ellis Island in New York, Tan succeeds in juxtaposing the sepia realism of his cross-hatched drawings of everyday items against the surreal elements of a distant city where boats powered by steam float through the air, decorative cogs turn under smokestacks and fantastical, alien creatures roam the streets. In this wordless graphic narrative, both the protagonist and the reader are deprived of language to orient themselves, with the only written words taking the form of the alien hieroglyphics of the foreign city.

Hence, Tan succeeds by forcing his reader directly into the bewildering and alienating experience of navigating an unfamiliar place and culture. In doing so, he subtly strips away at the layer of prejudice which encourages people to view refugees as ‘Other’. Anyone separated from a parent in a shopping centre as a child can understand the primal terror of being scared, alone and confused in a strange place. By tapping into these basic instincts, Tan crafts a masterpiece which transcends language itself. 

The protagonist is aided by those who have come before him, who stop to share their own stories. In these haunting passages, Tan seamlessly transitions into the memories of these newfound friends, signalling their point of view through a shift from sepia into black and white. A book is taken from a young girl’s hands and placed under lock and key, while her own future is locked away in never-ending work. A couple flee the stuff of nightmares, a looming giant in fascist boots which sucks citizens up into backpack incinerators. An old man remembers his youth, marching in a conical hat to the beat of a war drum. When it was over, all that remained was a pile of bones and the rubble of his former home. The details are irrelevant, all that matters is the human cost paid by these characters. Despite the shifting shape of their stories, which refuse to reference any one time or place, the central fact remains the same. Home is no longer safe. And that, Tan suggests, should be reason enough to accept these arrivals without question. 

Tan allows his narrative to unfold at times as if it were a series of photographs. He draws our attention to how the protagonist carefully wraps a photograph of his family in cloth for the long journey ahead, pondering it throughout the story whenever he feels isolated, sustaining their bond until they can be reunited. By contrast, when his photograph on identification documents is held by an unseen bureaucrat, the features of our protagonist’s face are smudged into an indistinguishable blur. No longer seen for who he is, he is reduced to what he is – another refugee. The system is designed to handle him without care. Through the motif of photographs, Tan highlights the importance of paying attention to those around us, as this forms the foundation of connection. Our protagonist only survives in part due to the strangers who make the effort to reach out, making him feel known in an unknown city. 

A year after the publication of The Arrival, John Howard was ousted from office. The Australian public had voted against his cynical contempt for anyone who did not fit his narrow vision for Australia. In his quiet and touching portrait of one man’s arrival, Tan reminds us how to make people feel like they belong once they get here. 

The Arrival was first published in 2006 by Hodder Children’s Books. It is available at most online and local retailers.

D.H. Allain is an emerging writer currently completing a Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. They have short fiction coming out soon in Farrago, and spend their time thinking about the intersections of class, gender and Australian culture.

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