1253 Running away in old age

Shadow Life
by Hiromi Goto, illustrated by Ann Xu

New York: First Second Books (Macmillan), 2021. Distributed by Raincoast Books. Please order from your local independent bookstore
$24.99 (U.S.) / 9781626723566

Reviewed by Carol Matthews


Vancouver poet and novelist Hiromi-Goto’s graphic novel Shadow Life, brilliantly illustrated by Ann Xu, is a vollendungsroman, a story about aging and the “winding down” of life. I don’t know much about graphic novels, but I do know something about aging and about how stories work.

When I read cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s Maus some 30 years ago I thought there could be no more powerful way of describing the horrors of the Holocaust. By using sketches of animals – Jews as mice, Nazis as cats, Poles as pigs — the novel allowed us to maintain a distance that helped us to endure the hellish account. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, published in 2004 and later made into a film, also uses the graphic novel to show life in Iran during the Islamic revolution through the eyes of a young girl, revealing ways in which war and political repression affect a child’s daily life.

Hiromi Goto. Photo by Dana Putnam

I realized that sometimes large questions can be made more accessible and more powerful in a graphic format. Shadow Life uses this format to present an inspiring model of how to confront the challenges of old age and endure them with courage, humour, endurance and imagination. The elderly protagonist, Kumiko, runs away from the long-term care facility into which her children have placed her. Bored with the conversation of the other residents and the “meddlers” that come to her door there, she packs up a few keepsakes and escapes into the night, bravely running through dark corridors and spooky stairways. She manages to set herself up in a small apartment of her own and the images of early scenes in her domestic life have a sweetness and charm to them as she hangs pictures, sets up her computer and prepares meals. Her neighbours are kind to her and she decides that there is both “Nice Meddling and Meddler’s Meddling.” Her new life is, for the most part, a happy one with blissful times in the swimming pool and or bathtub, and the daily pleasure of choosing just what she wants to cook and eat.


















Hiromi Goto. Photo by Sylvia McFadden

Many elderly readers will be familiar with assisted care facilities and will appreciate Kumiko’s observation that “Green Acres sounds like a retirement home for farm animals.” We’ve all had connections with such places, often named Pineridge or Evergreen or Rosewood or Willowdale, and we can sympathize with Kumiko’s determination to leave in order to make her own choices. On the other hand, daily life for elderly people living alone can be precarious. Kumiko loses her keys, forgets to take her pills, has a painful fall that takes her to the hospital. It’s not always easy to navigate one’s freedom in later years.

And, although she’s able to run away from the constraints of Green Acres, Kumiko cannot escape Death’s Shadow, which follows her in the form of black spots or a cat or a spider or a curious creature in a plaid shirt. Some of Xu’s sketches of this shape-shifting presence are terrifying, and this is where we see the power of the graphic novel as it creates the kind of experience we have of dreams or nightmares. In these experiences in which images, not words, are best able to convey the truth.

Illustrator Ann Xu

The stories and settings in this novel suggest British Columbia with references to Japanese Canadians being sent to prison camps during the war and sketches that show Vancouver-type buses and streets. A lake lined with pine trees, the site of Kumiko’s husband’s death, is very West Coast. There are also references to the severed feet which have been washed ashore in BC.

Goto’s text is crisp, clever and very witty, and Xu’s powerful images are heightened by exclamations like FROOMP!, POP!, GULP!, WHIRR, SMACK and FWOOSH! In her Author’s Note, Goto says “Graphic novels are visual articulations of story that demonstrate material possibilities that novels cannot … they perform representation, literally.” It’s true. The whole book feels intensely immediate.

The vollendungsroman typically includes a life review and a coming to terms with what has been and what might have been which may lead to a healing of old wounds and an affirmation of love. Happily, at the conclusion of this novel, Kumiko is re-united with her daughters and with her former lover. Kumiko’s landlord says of her, “You’re something else, old woman,” and we have to agree.

An emigrant from Japan, Goto acknowledges that her grandmother, Oba-Chan, has had a strong influence on her life which perhaps explains the depth one sees in her portrait of Kumiko. In her Author’s Note, Goto speculates that one reason she writes about older women is because it helps her to imagine who she will become: “It is my dream to become more like my grandmother,” she says.

Shadow Life is a moving representation of what it means to be growing old, wishing for independence, accepting what is and preparing to face death. It’s a good story.


Carol Matthews

Carol Matthews has worked as a social worker, as Executive Director of Nanaimo Family Life, and as instructor and Dean of Human Services and Community Education at Malaspina University-College, now Vancouver Island University (VIU). She has published a collection of short stories (Incidental Music, from Oolichan Books) and four works of non-fiction. Her short stories and reviews have appeared in literary journals such as RoomThe New Quarterly, Grain, PrismMalahat Review, and EventEditor’s note: Carol Matthews has also reviewed books by Anita Lahey, Ivan Coyote, and  Tamara Macpherson Vukusic for The Ormsby Review.


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