Pull Me Under
By Kelly Luce
FSG. 2016.

Back when I taught English in Japan, the worst thing that happened to me was being denied entrance to a few restaurants. Kelly Luce, author of Pull Me Under (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux), wasn’t so lucky. In this New York Magazine article, she describes spending a week in a Japanese women’s jail after being wrongfully accused of shoplifting. After reading that harrowing story, I was interested in checking out Luce’s novel, which came out in November 2016. I’d heard the book is set in Japan, and I wondered about its relationship with Luce’s tumultuous experience there.

“The girl raised her palm,” begins Pull Me Under, “and stilled the room with five words: ‘This is not my blood.’” Thus are described the circumstances of protagonist Rio Silvestri’s early life. Rio, once Chizuru Akitani, is a half-Japanese, half-American woman who murdered her bully when she was twelve.

The book sounds gory, but most of it takes place long after Rio’s bloody childhood. Chizuru/Rio’s incarcerated teenage years happen over only a few pages; then she leaves Japan for a new start in America at age 18. She goes to college, changes her name to Rio, finds a husband, and gives birth to a daughter. And that’s where the story really begins: Rio is inexorably pulled toward confronting her past when she learns her estranged violinist father has passed away. She returns to Japan for his funeral, and ends up attempting a pilgrimage to eighty-eight temples in Shikoku, a hiking journey that takes months to complete.

Rio’s spiritual pilgrimage dominates much of Pull Me Under. She journeys along with Miss Danny, the same English-language teacher who discovered twelve-year-old Chizuru covered in blood all those years ago. As their relationship develops, we discover Rio’s history is even more complicated than it seems.

Luce’s familiarity with her Japanese setting is clear. Small, vivid details—from the plastic-wrapped seaweed and rice onigiri to the gruff racism of elderly shopkeepers—make Rio’s surroundings feel authentic, lending to the book the feeling of a travelogue. I particularly enjoyed Rio’s developing friendship with Shinobu, the Shikoku pilgrim and English-language student who joins Rio and Miss Danny along the way. “I like teasing him,” Rio muses. “He takes it so well, as if he’s trying to acquire a sense of humor as well as a second language.” Reading this, I felt I knew Shinobu, so dearly did he resemble a colleague from my own Japanese high school.

This satisfying cultural accuracy helped out again and again when character development got lean. On that particular front, I felt Luce could have worked harder in Pull Me Under. Rio’s Italian-American husband feels both stereotypical and unreal as he implores her to return home so they can have a second child and move to a suburban development named Tuscany Fields. And Rio’s character frustrates too. As an American, her life would be the envy of many. She is a nurse, cares for her daughter, and runs ultra-marathons for fun. Her Japanese childhood, spent incarcerated for murder, seems unrelated, unbelievably lacking any connection with this idyll of middle-class success.

What I do believe in are Rio’s actions. She is brash and dynamic, constantly expressing herself in ways that are physical, uniquely her own. She hikes, runs, even hits: “I lunge forward and slap Danny. The butt of my palm hits her jaw and her head slams into the wall behind her with a satisfying thud.” In fact, I suspect if the novel had been written in third person, instead of first, I would have been on board with the mystery surrounding Rio. Despite listening to her inner voice for hundreds of pages, I felt like I’d witnessed her story as an outsider.

But honestly, I think for any American who has been to Japan, experiencing the culture there has a similar alien, out-of-body feeling. You see and do so much, and leave understanding so little. And that’s why I admire Luce for attempting this book. She took real risks, striving to explore a mental space that’s both familiar and foreign. Rio is a bizarre and fascinating character, one about whom a novel should absolutely be written. If the result of that project inspired one too many character questions, well, as the Japanese would say, shou ga nai—it can’t be helped.

Ultimately, while it would be a mistake to call Pull Me Under a psychological thriller, I do not think it would be a mistake to read it. Luce’s easy prose made the book addictive to read, and she really got me thinking about the unpredictable ramifications of biculturality and immigration. At the end of the day, she’s definitely a writer I’ll return to. I can tell she’s evolving into a gutsy, entertaining storyteller. And for me, figuring out what was missing from Pull Me Under—itself a story about lost pasts and missing identities—was far more interesting than reading the work of any self-satisfied literary master.

Natalie Mesnard