This wordless graphic novel by Shaun Tan presents a familiar immigrant tale, but the presentation makes it unfamiliar. It begins with a man leaving his wife and daughter in a city where some sort of danger lurks. He crosses the ocean, stands in a line, gets some papers, and wanders an entirely alien city looking for housing, a job, friends. And, gradually, he makes a home for his family.
When I say the city is alien, I mean it. The images show a place that looks little like our world. Odd little (and big) animals roam the streets and buildings. (See, for example, the little critter on the cover.) Many of the buildings are shaped like cones, and the language uses symbols unfamiliar both to us as readers and to the main characters.
This unfamiliarity allows readers to experience the strangeness of this new world right along with the main character. We’d be just as likely as he was to put posters on the wall upside down, as he does in his first job in the new city. And we’d be just as puzzled as he is by some of the instruments used for daily life. We learn the rules along with him, also without the benefit of knowing the language. It’s interesting that one of the clearest communications he makes in his new home is a simple sketch of a bed—images become a shared language when written and spoken language fail.
The fact that this is a fantasy world helps universalize the story, making it applicable to immigrants to and from many different nations. Although Tan models some of his drawings on existing images, including photographs from Ellis Island, he draws inspiration from stories of immigrants from all over the world, including his father, who immigrated to Australia from Malaysia. The drawings at the front and back of the book show people of many different ages and nationalities. By taking the story out of our world, Tan allows it to speak to all of our world.