The Arrival is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read–all without reading a single word. Shaun Tan delivers a pictorial account of a man immigrating from his home town and living in a new country. Throughout the entire book, readable text isn’t available. There are no words. Everything is expressed through Tan’s realistic drawings.
When a man leaves his wife and daughter home and travels to a foreign land, he struggles to do the simplistic of tasks. He can’t read signs, pick up groceries, or get reliable work without encountering communication problems. Luckily, he comes across some friendly faces willing to help him make his new life as an immigrant more comfortable. Along the way, he learns of his new friends’ pasts, each one prompting a strong desire to immigrate to their present location.
Because The Arrival is a picture book, picking up on the main character’s situation is easy for readers. For complicated issues, some scenes are depicted in great detail, almost frame by frame.
The best part of the book is how easy it is to fall into the story without feeling forced. Tan injects layer upon layer of reality throughout the whole book, allowing the first layer to soak in before placing another layer of information onto the viewer. While the main character is going through his obstacles as an immigrant, Tan creates a subtle atmosphere for viewers, furthering connecting the viewer with the character. In places where the character couldn’t read the signs, the viewers couldn’t read the fictional dingbats. It wasn’t until Tan provided a visual prompt—like drawing a picture of a bed in order to find lodging—that both the character and the viewer can understand.
Alongside the strong visual content is the Surrealistic presence. The animals look more like moving plushies and origami papers than realistic animals. Big government is portrayed as gigantic people in welding suits. It’s like Tan knew exactly what was in the viewer’s dreams before pulling out a pencil and illustrating dream-like scenes.
The Arrival depicts a departure from text-reliant books and an advent of powerful picture books with realistic themes.