Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A story without words

Do you need words to tell a story?

Visual artists have proven for centuries how images alone can convey as much feeling and meaning as the written word, but in the world of books, it’s usually a given that language will be used in some capacity.
Enter Shaun Tan and his stunning picture book The Arrival.

It’s a title that’s been on my list for a while now (and one which the Ink-stained Toe Poker mentioned on last week’s post). I finally bought a copy on the weekend, and then sat down for a wonderfully unique and moving narrative experience.

For those who don’t know, Shaun Tan is an acclaimed Australian illustrator of picture books for older readers. Although his work often finds itself in the children’s section, it certainly isn’t created for youngsters. As the artist himself says, his stories “deal with relatively complex visual styles and themes, including colonial imperialism, social apathy, the nature of memory and depression”.

Until recently, his works were more along the lines of graphic novels, but Tan took the narrative form a step further with The Arrival, by producing a story without a single written word in a comprehensible language. (And then confounding the literary establishment by winning the New South Wales Premier's Literary Award.)

The story is about a man who leaves his wife and child in an impoverished town, seeking better prospects in an unknown country on the other side of a vast ocean. He eventually finds himself in a bewildering city of foreign customs, peculiar animals, curious floating objects and indecipherable languages.

With nothing more than a suitcase and a handful of currency, the immigrant must find a place to live, food to eat and some kind of gainful employment. He is helped along the way by sympathetic strangers, each carrying their own unspoken history: stories of struggle and survival in a world of incomprehensible violence, upheaval and hope.

The Arrival is a tribute to anyone (like Tan’s own family) who has left their home behind in search of a better life in a foreign land. While the traveller in this story ventures to a fantastical world of weird creatures, food and social customs, his experience is no doubt no less startling that those of immigrants in our “real” world.

Tan’s narrative magic is woven two-fold: through his imaginative, evocative and detailed drawings, and the story (and stories within stories) of a man finding his place in a new world.

And it’s the nature of this man's struggle - to understand his environment without sharing the language of its inhabitants - which makes the absence of words all the more powerful and appropriate.

There are moments of humor, fear and pathos, as the immigrant makes a new life in the hope of bringing his family to join him. It’s a gentle story, full of meaning and emotion, and one which moved me to tears.

Perhaps even more so than a book with words, this is one story I will revisit again and again, with the promise of new detail to be discovered in the images with each viewing, along with the emotional pay-off of an uplifting story.

The Arrival is a perfect addition to any bookcase. It's a collection of art and a beautiful story. I can’t recommend it enough.

(As a side note, the book as a physical object plays a part in the experience as well. The cover is wonderfully tactile, and I found myself repeatedly running my fingers over it, and the pages inside.)

You can find out more about Shaun Tan and his work at

I’m now keeping an eye out for his next work, Tales from Outer Suburbia.


Charley said...

My favorite illustration is of the 2 huge guys in the boats shaking hands. I think 1 has a bird on his shoulder, and the other has a little creature. I think in the introduction Tan says he spent 4 years researching and creating The Arrival - pretty impressive. A great book. I also love David Wiesner's wordless books, like Flotsam, Tuesday, and Free Fall.

the ink-stained toe-poker said...

'Tales' is in Riverbend book shop (where my new job is) already. It looks amazing too although I didn't have time to have a proper look though.

I agree with Charlie the two huge guys is amazing what about the veggies n that?

It's just an amazing book!

Quality posting PW.

Bec said...

Wow Paula, this sounds amazing! I was already on the lookout for this author/illustrator, after reading Ali's post (she is a lovely girl from the Brisbane Etsy collective that I am a part of) about how she recently heard him talk. You can check out what she said here about him here if you're interested -

She also bought Tales from Outer Suburbia while she was there - but I don't know where that actually was...sorry that's real helpful isn't it...

Anyway, thanks for another inspiring post :)


Linda Jacobs said...

Wow, this sounds great! I'm always looking for something different.

Gustav said...

Dear Paula

Thanks for bringing this book to our attention.

Can you imagine the looks Shaun probably got when he initially came up with the idea for a book without words?

Yet it looks like he has done a remarkable job!

The illustrations you have on your blog remind me of a Beckett play (e.g. Waiting for Godott).

There is an underlying poetic sadness in the lonely man on the cover of the book with his suitcase, stooped over looking at the strange dog like animal. He looks like a man who has led a boring life and now is running away from that boredom and begins finding that life is now filled with the unexpected.

I need to get this book asap.

Gustav said...


I have thought of a question for you that is unrelated to this post.

The question is do you prefer to see a picture of the author inside the cover of a book that you just read and that you really loved?

I am reading one of my daughter's Harry Potter books and Ms Rowling has a huge one page picture of herself on the inside cover.

My own view is that if there is not a photo of the author it piques the reader's interest in who wrote the book and what the author is about, rather than what they look like. Once I see the photo of the author it takes away some of this interest for me...

Perhaps thats why I enjoy your blog as well. You stay very focused on your mission. There are no photos of you. Its all about Great Stories.

Paula Weston said...

Charley, I love that pic too!

And thank you, Gustav, for your question about author photos. I think it's worth a post in its own right, so I'll give it some thought and hopefully have a new post in the next day or so.

Everyone else - thanks as always for joining the conversation!