“FatherReader” here, everyone. I thought I’d give MotherReader a bit of a break today and write another quick guest review. Our hostess will be back in prime fighting form soon.
One of the great challenges an author can face is taking an experience wholly foreign to a majority of his or her audience and allowing them to truly feel what the characters are experiencing. With The Arrival, Shaun Tan takes on that challenge with the ordeal of immigration.
Of course, the “story” of the immigrant experience has been told a thousand times. And therein lies part of the problem we’re all familiar with the tale. Told in a straightforward manner, it can no longer bring about the sense of being in a completely foreign environment particularly since (at least in America) such tales are usually told about people coming from other places into our environment. To the reader, it is the immigrants who may seem a little strange, a little out of place, rather than the place itself. Even if the reader shares a cultural heritage with the protagonists, the perspective is one of looking backward from a position of comfortable assimilation. Furthermore, because we live in a comparatively worldly, well-educated society, even when the situation is reversed say, an American going off to live in a foreign land the sense of amazed wonder and confusion cannot compare to the experience of someone brought up in a more insular world.
What Tan does is take the framework of the early twentieth-century immigrant experience (even the book cover looks like an old suitcase or leather-bound scrapbook) and wrap it in a wordless graphic novel that uses elements of science fiction to convey the experience of immigration, even if not the literal history. Our protagonist is a normal everyman with a normal family who, in making the great journey to a foreign land, is forced to deal with things so alien as to be indecipherable. But though this “land of opportunity” holds sometimes baffling wonders, the world is grounded in everyday concerns the needs for food, shelter, employment. As he copes with amazing (and sometimes frustrating) new experiences new animals, new customs, new languages we are similarly bewildered. As he gradually becomes accustomed to his new world, sharing histories with other immigrants, we see how each of their experiences has components that to one who has not lived through them truly defy comprehension. Over time, he manages to make a way for himself, and prepare a path for his family to follow.
Of course, the storytelling is gripping without being melodramatic, and the artwork is absolutely phenomenal. The attention to detail is astounding, and the juxtaposition of a sepia-toned color palette with fantastical imagery, though jarring at first, admirably conveys both nostalgia and wonder (the new world is populated with bizarre machinery, but our hero travels there by old-fashioned steamship). And though the book does have some darker passages, the underlying optimism and faith in the goodness of human nature is inspirational. Moments that could be harrowing (the search for a job when one has no particular skills to offer) are punctuated by bits of humor (inadvertently hanging a series of posters upside-down because of a language barrier). And images that seem frightening at first (a bizarre creature lurking in his apartment) become endearing with familiarity (the animal becomes a new pet).
This is not a tale told, but a tale experienced. And I’m glad to have taken the trip.