Illustrator Shaun Tan calls his latest work, The Arrival, a picture book. I think you’ll find it’s a bit more than that.
For me, this complex and fascinating work occupies some other reading realm. Yes, it’s full of illustrations. It’s also novel length (which is why you’ll find it in the graphic novel section of most bookstores). But you won’t find a word of traditional text or dialogue.
It opens sensibly enough with a sequence depicting a family photograph that’s inevitably plucked from the shelf, wrapped and placed in a suitcase. And so begins (and ends) the most traditional part of a story of a man who leaves his wife and daughter to look for work and perhaps a better life in a foreign land.
This is where Tan cranks up the creativity. The traveller’s destination comes off as a surreal and wondrous cross between Xanadu and Oz – with fez-adorned statues larger than the colossus at Thebes and flocks of origami-shaped birds swooping overhead.
The traveller must learn to navigate the city (at one point he travels in a compartment carried aloft by a hot air balloon), speak a foreign language and find work and a place to live.
There’s not much I’d like to give away about the city, the inhabitants he encounters there or the special help he receives from a strangle little egg shaped lizard. You must see it for yourself.
I promise that “reading” this book is the real voyage of discovery. The first time, I found myself flipping the pages quickly, trying to figure out what was going on. The second time, I slowed down, stopping for minutes at a time to take in the imaginative splendour of some of the full-page illustrations or details of some of the complicated frame sequences. Lately, I’ve been opening the book at random, and savouring whatever slice of the journey happens to lie before me.