Before I write the review proper, I would like to thank Jeff VanderMeer for making me aware of this wonderful book in a short post on his blog.
2007 has been a very good year for new books. Whether it be re-working of iconic events in American history (Emma Bull's Territory, which fuses the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral with Chinese folk magic) or the long-awaited English translation of some of Andrzej Sapkowski's work (The Last Wish story collection), among a great many others that come to mind, rarely have I had such a ready supply of enjoyable and well-written books that I know I can re-read over and over again and still get enjoyment. However, it has been years since I have marveled over how a story was constructed and executed. Shaun Tan's The Arrival (published in the US earlier this month) is one of those rare stories.
I have tried to formulate my thoughts into a systematic review, but this may be one of the few times that I'll just say "Look at the cover! If you like that shit, wait until you see what's within, as there's more where that came from!" The Arrival is being billed as a "wordless" graphic novel, where the action is shown in images and any "writing" that appears is in an invented script. This forces the "reader" to focus on each individual illustration and then compare that to the ones before and after to see the story that is unfolding.
Although this one holds the potential for a unique form of storytelling, if there isn't an emotional story to be seen in the images, then all the excellent and detailed illustrations in the world would not be able to make the story memorable. Thankfully, Tan has chosen a powerful story that practically demands this form of storytelling: that of an immigrant to a new land. Using the late 19th century trans-Atlantic wave of immigration to the United States as well as the more recent migration move from the Pacific Rim countries to Tan's native Australia as a model, Tan shows us a fantastical voyage of a father parting from his family for a time to live in a strange new land, with these odd and yet sometimes endearing creatures that live among humans.
When viewing these images, I felt a shared sense of hope, sadness, frustration, anger, resolution, among many others. I have read many immigrant accounts and seen many photos of places such as Ellis Island over the course of my many years as a history major and a social studies teacher. This is the first time that a created world has managed to capture that same set of emotions as I have had when reading those historical accounts. I am considering photocopying a couple of these images (with proper attribution to Tan and with educational purposes, as per the Fair Use Act, before any worry about that) and using this in some of my classes to show in images just how powerful and traumatic of an event migration has been in human history. I also believe that regardless of one's own ancestral history, this book will make for a moving and enjoyable experience. Sometimes, a picture (or in this case, an illustration) is worth much more than a thousand words. This is one of those times. "Read" it.