Shaun Tan is one of the best artists that you’ve probably never heard of. Born and raised in Australia, Tan has made his name as an author and illustrator of children’s books, with his first illustration appearing in Aurealis at the tender age of sixteen. The Arrival is only one of over a dozen books that Shaun has worked on, mostly as an illustrator. Tan’s worked with Gary Crew, John Marsden and Steven Paulsen, but his most critically acclaimed work was created as a soloist.
The Arrivalis Shaun’s fourth solo piece, telling the story of a nameless man who travels alone to a mysterious country to seek his fortune. The illustrations are cryptic and surreal, and nothing is as it seems. That’ s not what makes it unique, though – The Arrival is a wordless novel, where the only dialogue is in the mind of the reader as they translate the visual narrative. The story is essentially a series of partially abstract images that the reader must stitch together and interpret in their own way.
Because of this, it’s a difficult book to read – it’s not just that you have to concentrate, you have to exercise every last drop of brain matter to find any meaning whatsoever. It’s like watching a TV programme that forces you to figure out transcendental equations to follow the plot. That being said, it’s still worth a read if only for Tan’s superb penmanship and the fantastic ‘new book’ smell that exudes from the glossy pages. The book itself is a masterpiece before you even open the covers.
Tan’s exotic city of weird creatures and strange customs could easily be Jerusalem, Baghdad or even Paris or London, viewed through a foreigner’s eyes. At its simplest, The Arrival is a story about the inherent peculiarities in human civilisation, and Tan paints this picture like an old renaissance master. But it has layers like an onion, or like a piece of the weird fruit that the dystopian proletariat gobble down between meals. It’s like a ‘choose your own adventure’ book, despite being linear – every subsequent reading will tell a different tale.
Despite the difficulty that The Arrival poses for the casual reader, it’s well-worth a read and recommended to fans of the obscure and the counter-culture. It’s won numerous awards, including the Premier’s Prize, Picture Book of the Year and the Peter Pan Award, and been ‘translated’ in to multiple languages. That’s not saying much, considering there’s nothing to translate except the title. But the coolest legacy is the orchestral adaptation. Orkestra of the Underground performed an 18-piece arrangement at the Sydney Opera House as the story was projected, frame-by-frame, on to a screen. I guess The Arrivalhas truly arrived.
The Arrival by Shaun Tan was first published in 2007. At the time of writing, it was rated 5/5 on Amazon and was available for £10.05. Click here to buy The Arrival.