Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce

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Kelly Luce: Pull Me Under (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)

Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce provides a much needed distraction from everyday life. Luce presents the protagonist, Chizuru Akitani, and her middle school murder of a bully on the first page and tracks the journey of Chizuru, now Rio Silvestri, as she returns to Japan for the first time since leaving the country for college in the U.S. Her father’s death brings her back to her hometown of Tokushima where she confronts her past.

Throughout the novel Rio references and grapples with “a dark presence in my chest, a blackness, clinging to the back of my heart.” I was quickly pulled into the story and curious to follow Rio as she grapples with her Japanese ancestry and attempts to control the dark violence in herself.

Once in Japan, Rio runs into her old English teacher, Danny, and follows her as she begins the Shikoku pilgrimage, hiking to eighty-eight temples. They meet a fellow pilgrim, Shinobu, and the three travel together, each tackling their own problems. Shinobu witnesses Rio striking Danny in an argument. Rio states, “You must think I do that kind of thing all the time, but I don’t. I’m not a violent person.”

Luce braids details of Japanese culture smoothly into Rio’s travels. And as Rio adjusts to being back in the country where she grew up, she plays tour guide for the reader. “There’s a trick to opening onigiri. To keep everything fresh, the plastic that wraps it is actually folded into the seaweed when it’s made, so if you go about it wrong you wind up with green shreds stuck to your palms and a naked ball of rice. But fingers remember.”

With ease, Luce inserts memories and conversations from Rio’s life so as Rio journeys onward, Luce fills in the past. Luce’s dialogue is earnest and her language moves the plot along smoothly. There are many beautiful moments and passages scattered through Pull Me Under, yet I wanted something more from the characters. They performed their roles, but never seemed to come fully to life on their own. Still, Pull Me Under is an excellent and entertaining debut novel, and I cannot wait for the next from Luce.


Thao Votang is co-editor of Conflict of Interest, a writer, and co-founder of Tiny Park.

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