Aging can be a scary ordeal, one which we must all experience as we travel along the path of life, for the threat of death looms overhead. In her debut graphic novel Shadow Life, Hiromi Goto and Ignatz-nominated cartoonist and illustrator, Ann Xu take us on a slice-of-life journey through the lens of an elderly woman who defies the pervasive, menacing fear of death, preferring, instead, to embrace and savor life to its fullest.

Kumiko Saito, a seventy-six-year-old widow, resides in an assisted living home where her well-intentioned daughters have placed her, much to her discomfort. One night, she sneaks out and runs away in pursuit of a little freedom, finding refuge in a cozy apartment. She touches base online with her eldest daughter Mitsuko, but refuses to divulge her secret hangout. While relaxing at her home away from home, she relishes in the mini pleasures in life—swimming at a community pool, snacking whenever she pleases, and taking cat naps at her leisure. In the midst of her private revelries however, a malevolent supernatural being has surfaced and begins to hound her with relentless determination. Later on, she pays a visit to have tea with her former female lover from another life time, but detects another spirit occupying her home. Sinister forces and other eerie occurrences are set into motion as she must soon combat the onslaught of death itself.

Goto and Xu have constructed a captivating story that explores the steadfast will of an elderly character who challenges stereotypes of aging. While she goes about taking care of daily tasks such as taking pills and cooking meals, the feisty Ms. Saito must also navigate a labyrinth of threatening obstacles seeking to ensnare her at every corner. Shadow Life depicts the dynamic resilience of an elderly woman whose courage perseveres at all odds while she dispenses a few bad ass tricks to battle the encroaching specter of death. A fluid storytelling style, combined with intrepid characters and sparse dialogue, creates a symbiotic narrative flow. Similar to watching a silent film, each shot captures minute details with careful attention, sometimes in a montage style. From quizzical facial expressions and photo snapshots to shadowy beings lurking in the corners, the intricately crafted elements in each panel unify to produce a visually gripping and well-designed plot.

Many stories featuring Asian seniors portray them as sage gurus, but this story offers a refreshing and rarely seen take by creating one imbued with agency. A haunting story interspersed with bits of the macabre and supernatural realism, but also radiating with warmth and compassion, Shadow Life offers a thrilling piece of literary fiction fit for all library collections.

Shadow Life
By Hiromi Goto
Art by  Ann Xu
First Second, 2021
ISBN: 9781626723566

Publisher Age Rating:  General Adult

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation: Japanese-Canadian, Queer,
Character Representation: Japanese-American, Bisexual,

  • Jerry

    | He/Him Information Strategist, San Francisco Public Library


    By day, Jerry Dear, APALA member and Information Strategist at the San Francisco Public Library tackles research questions in the Periodicals department. He also teaches in the Library Information Technology department at City College of San Francisco. By night, he serves the Asian American community and ventures into the vibrant literary arts and graphic novel scene. In whatever time remains, he indulges in comics, anime, manga, and Asian American literature and film.

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