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My notes on Shaun Tan's 'The Arrival' for my book group

These notes were made for my presentation on this wonderful graphic novel for my adult book group. Though in note form, I hope they give a sense of how rich the novel is and how much there is to say about it as a narrative text and how rich it would be to explore with YA readers in English classrooms.

Basic structure of the book

Looks like a photograph album – the photographs tell a sequential narrative.


The set up – a man and his family are shown in their home town. He is leaving. There is a sense of threat, though what that is is left ambiguous. He is leaving as part of a bigger migration.


The man’s journey to a new land and arrival there. The narrative explores his search for somewhere to live.


Section 3 is about the man discovering the new world and meeting its inhabitants – many of whom also turn out to be migrants as well and tell their own stories, so there are several stories within the main narrative. We hear what happened to the people he meets and how they got to be there themselves. He gets to find out more about the basic structures of his new world – work, transport, food, and new creatures who seem to belong to individuals and help them negotiate their lives.


The search for work and meeting with an old man. This is another story within a story – the elderly man and his early life and experience of a war that seems very recognisable to us from the early/mid twentieth century.


Letters home and time passing. The man’s contact with his family and the promise that now they will join him. Their arrival.


The coda – the new world. Settling into a new life. Positive view of what happens to them? The future?

So far so simple. But I think there’s a lot of complexity in the text that makes it possible for us to read it in the same ways as we might a novel. So I want to ask that question of it – To what extent is this a narrative in the same way as a novel is a narrative? Can we read it in this way?

In what ways do the drawings do the same kinds of things that a satisfying narrative does? Along the way I want to pick up a few examples but I think that will leave us plenty of other things to talk about. I’m just going to dip in and then we could maybe explore in more detail some of the images and what they seem to mean to us.

Tell a story with a recognisable plot PLOT (Yes. As just outlined). Is there SUSPENSE, wanting to know what happens?

Tell it through a single (or multiple viewpoint) POINT OF VIEW

Multiple viewpoint e.g. image of the hands reaching out. Stories within stories.

Does it have a ‘voice’ VOICE Interesting question. In a way, Tan’s artistic style and method is his voice, in the same way as the prose style of a writer is highly distinctive.

Use symbols, images and motifs to provide a thematic glue to hold the narrative together? SYMBOLS, IMAGES, MOTIFS e.g. the images at the start of the book and then coming back to them at the end. The hands – symbol of attachment and separation, symbol of giving and receiving. OR the symbol of danger, oppression which is symbolically represented.

Handling of time – CHRONOLOGICAL, FLASHBACK, FLASHFORWARD, REFLECTION ON THE PAST – the use of the photograph or images in his head of the past allow us to move backwards and forwards in time.

Sometimes close focus on a moment, description of a scene, sometimes a broad sweep. CLOSE UP, BROAD PICTURE

Dialogue – key missing element. What’s the impact of this? DIALOGUE

Suspense & reader engagement

Scope for DIFFERENT INTERPRETATIONS I’d argue that there the rich scope for interpretation in novels is here in this text too. Unlike many graphic novels it has no words – just pictures. I’m not a great reader of graphic novels but one that I read and found very powerful was Persepolis. That has both words and pictures and I think, in a way, that is a very different experience. In reading a novel, you make the images in your head. You fill in the gaps. In reading ‘The Arrival’ you’re also filling in gaps. And that’s satisfying. Where you have both words and pictures, perhaps that means there’s less pleasurable work to do as a reader.

e.g. of interpretative possibilities

– the arrival in the new world. The kind of world depicted

– The role of the creatures

– The ending

– The images on the inside covers of the book. Why?

– The use of black and white and sepia. Is there a pattern to this?

– Significance of the blank pages. Is it just time passing? A new episode?

If this were a novel, what kind would it be? Genre? Post-colonial? Post-modern?

I’d argue that it’s

POST-MODERN in the sense that it plays with perspective, isn’t entirely linear

that it has multiple viewpoints

that it can be interpreted in very different ways

it plays with different genres – the realistic and the surreal, not limiting itself to the boundaries of one

Strong elements of REALISM but also a SURREAL, almost SCI-FI or DYSTOPIAN WORLD. Realistic human figures are placed in a surreal world. Why? Not one particular story but a more generic one – common feature of satire, or dystopia e.g. Waiting for the Barbarians

The historic and the futuristic – echoes of the Holocaust and first world war, echoes of European migrations of this century but also futuristic elements.


The establishment of the family.


Images that home in on detail or give the broad sweep e.g. the portholes on the ship, broadening out to the ship, broadening out to the ship on the ocean.

Arriving – the strangeness of the buildings – human & domestic objects. To suggest the sense of foreignness, otherness. But recognisable as a version of New York? American imagery.

Process of being labelled, defined, stamped, given an identity.

Finding somewhere to live – puzzles to be solved. (Like the 3 card trick).

Wonderful the way images expand out to show he fits into the context. Not just one isolated case of immigration but part of a whole big picture e.g. his room, his window, many windows, the whole building in the context of a city.

Images that recur or are very subtly picked up e.g. the smoke from the chimneys in the city almost has human form, as do the images of the clouds in the page of images of the sea and the sky on the boat.


The girl he meets on public transport and her story – slave labour.

The role the creatures play – helping the human beings to find their way around the complex world. (Like Pullman’s creatures in ‘Northern Lights’?)

The frightening tail of a creature hanging over his world turns out to be the tail of one of these creatures in the new world. In different cultures, different experiences, but the man of the family has also suffered and had to flee, hiding in the sewers. Hiding from the giant boot – symbol of oppression. The giants with their huge machines, like ethnic cleansers???

Family welcomes him in. Food, laughter, music.

He makes the boy a paper creature, like the bird at the beginning of the book that he makes for his own daughter.

The pot – an everyday object. Symbol of ordinary life, giving? They offer it to him.


The search for work. Finds work pasting up posters, but he puts them upside down. Doesn’t understand the language.

Finds work on a production line. Small detail to big picture. A feature of Tan’s style.

The people he meets – the old man and his memories, going to war. Death and destruction. Return to the rubble of his home.

Use of grey for bad memories.

Old man takes him to meet his people. They play a game, watched by the creatures. Sunlit world?


Starts with one of the creatures (associated with the old man)

Letter home.

The passing of the seasons.

The pot he’s been given becomes a nest for the flying creatures. New life. Re-birth.

Letter comes from his wife and daughter.

Looking out for the balloon bringing them.

Their arrival.


The same pattern of images as on the first page, but changed to show the new world they’ve entered

The paper creature, the clock, the hat, food, the drawing, the teapot, the teacup.

The end – the child as the future? More able to adapt, going out into the world on her own, showing her mother the way?

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