Book Review: The Arrival

With the recent atrocities in Aleppo and refugee wellbeing as one of the most challenging debates in the world today, Shaun Tan’s graphic novel The Arrival is more relevant than ever. CCN’s pioneering theatre company, Platform Theatre, has recently performed a stage adaptation that is available on estream here, so we’re reposting our review!


The Arrival by Shaun Tan is a graphic novel with beautiful sepia-toned artwork and a fantastical world, but beyond that it is a powerful story about a refugee.  Experience The Arrival and explore a new point of view on the lives of refugees.

The Arrival uses pictures to tell the story of a man who is forced to leave his family in their dangerous homeland so he can try and make a new life for them somewhere else. He travels to a beautiful city where the language is different and he is surrounded by customs, food and technology he doesn’t understand. However, he must survive, so with the help of both locals and fellow immigrants, he manages to find somewhere to live. He makes friends with other refugees, all of whom have their own harrowing tales of escaping oppression, war and genocide, and though he has difficulty finding work (partly because of the language barriers and cultural differences), he keeps going until he can find a job in a factory. However, the fears of the monstrous shadowy tentacles that he fled in his homeland will always haunt him, even as this safe and accepting city becomes his new home, and he never forgets that he has come here to make a place for his family to come to.

Tan’s artwork is stunningly beautiful and the pictures tell the story without any need for words. In fact, when he first comes to the new city, the main character is surrounded by strange letters and words. Looking for words to explain the story, the reader is thrown into the same state of confusion as he is.  Both the man’s homeland and the new country in which he settles are imaginary, but The Arrival is a great example of how fantasy can say things that other fiction finds difficult – Tan isn’t writing specifically about people escaping religious persecution by the Taliban or war in any number of countries, but he is also writing about all of that. Fantasy gives writers the chance to write about issues in the modern world in a way that goes beyond nationalities and pre-existing prejudices.

To emphasise the universality of the story, the flyleaf is covered with pictures of immigrants who came to New York at the beginning of the Twentieth Century of all faiths, nationalities and ethnicities. The fantastical city, which welcomes refugees with open arms but a lot of bureaucracy, is modelled on pictures of early-twentieth-century New York. The only thing missing from the real-life experiences of refugees is the hostility of the people who live in the city to immigration – personally, I prefer Shaun Tan’s vision of a place that acts as a sanctuary and provides a hope of a life free from oppression.

Read The Arrival by Shaun Tan (BOOK ZONE 741.5973) for a fantastical story that has some very real parallels in the lives of refugees across the world.

If you want to learn more about the experiences of refugees…

Read Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah (BOOK ZONE 823.91). Benjamin Zephaniah is best-known for his dub poetry, but Refugee Boy is a novel about a refugee from Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Learn about the personal experiences of refugees in A Long Way From Home: Young Refugees in Manchester Write About Their Lives collected by Jacquline Ann Ould (QUICK READS 362.87).

Try Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, either the original graphic novel (NORFOLK HOUSE 741.5944) or the animated film adaptation (LOBBY DVD AREA 791.433). Satrapi tells the story of her childhood in Iran and her family’s decision to send her to school in Austria. Considering a large proportion of people seeking asylum in Britain are from Iran, Persepolis provides an important insight into the oppression they are fleeing.



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