Saturday, 4 August 2007

Page Turners: The Arrival

In first for Page Turners we studied a graphic novel this month. The Arrival by Shaun Tan is a beautifully illustrated novel without words. It tells the story of a man who leaves his wife and daughter and travels to a far-off mystical land where everything is strange and unknown -- food, architecture, animals, language etc. We know he's in search of a better life for his family, as his homeland is under threat of dragon-like shadows.

The novel focuses on his first few days in the new land, as he tries to find somewhere to live, something to eat, and gainful employment. Along the way he meets and chats to kind strangers who are also refugees from different forms of persecution and they relate their own stories to him.

As a book for discussion it proved very interesting. On a philosphical level we could discuss the topics of immigrants and refugees -- certainly the book's primary theme. But we also spent time marvelling at the amazing illustrations, at the motifs of everyday life that recur and mutate across the pages, at the skill of the drawings, at the use of sequential frames to depict action and make clear exactly what is happening. In many ways it was like watching a silent film, frame by frame.

One aspect of the novel that I particularly liked was the man's little 'friend', a weird looking creature that adopts him and becomes a dog-like companion. Most of the characters in the novel had a weird pet-creature that accompanied them everywhere -- yet every such creature was different! It reminded me of the personal soul-daemons in the Phillip Pullman His Dark Materials trilogy.

The strangeness of the place depicted in The Arrival was disturbing for some in our group. I didn't find it so, but I constantly found myself waiting for something bad to happen to the man, that this mystical Dali-like place he'd fled to couldn't possibly be as bountiful and peaceful as it appeared. However nothing bad did happen, and the final scenes show the man and his family happily making a new life for themselves there.

Overall I found it very moving and poignant. On his website, Shaun Tan writes at length about the processes and inspirations behind the novel. This makes very interesting reading. He discusses his fascination with 'belonging' and outlines how he came to be interested in the migrant experience.

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