Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce. Farrar, Straus and Giroux| November 2016| 272 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 9780374238582
At the novel’s beginning, twelve year old Chizuru Akitani, the Japanese American daughter of acclaimed violinist Hiro Akitani, fatally stabs a classmate. She’s bullied in school for one of the most common reasons children tease other children, she’s different– she’s a hafu—Japanese for mixed blood [“Hafu implied my Japanese-ness was the only part of me that mattered, that there would never be enough.”] and fat. Her American-born mother commits suicide. Her father didn’t spend that much time with her (or her mom). She suppressed anger for as long as she could until she was pushed too far by the bully. It’s explained like this: “I noticed at a young age—four years old, five—a dark presence in my chest, a blackness, clinging to the back of my heart. Mostly the thing lay dormant and I could put it out of my mind. But occasionally it swelled like an infected gland. These were the times I felt hurt or angry, the sensations so closely linked that I never separated them until a therapist pointed out the difference. My anger was an organ.”
The haunting story unfolds methodically revealing details. Chizuru serves time in a juvenile detention facility, must denounce her Japanese citizenship, changes her name to Rio and moves to the United States to attend college. She reinvents herself while rarely looking back on her past. Rio strives to blend in and succeeds. This seems quite a positive and mindful manner in which to exist. Rio becomes a runner—“I’d found a way to soothe that curdled feeling of anxiety; when I ran, the bad things fell away.” She becomes a nurse, marries her college boyfriend and has a daughter. She’s the good wife, good mother, and good employee. Of her life in Colorado: “I feel like what I am: a thirty-eight-year-old mother and wife with a retirement fund and a house in the suburbs and a Volvo. My life has been built for safety.” While in the United States, many might present several various facades for various relationships or settings, there’s a name for it in Japan—“Interactions revolve around honne and tatemae. Honne is what you really think and feel; tatemae, like the façade of a building, is the face you show to the world.” Globally, women are expected to suppress emotions, feelings and thoughts. Perhaps more so in Japan than in the United States although it’s clear per societal standards and the general zeitgeist that outspoken women and poorly behaved women rarely get rewarded compared to male counterparts.
Decades later, Rio returns to Japan to reconcile her present with her past and perhaps embrace forgiveness. Her husband and daughter know nothing about her past. Rio reflects: “Sal doesn’t know all of me. Maybe this is true of all husbands and wives; after all, there are inaccessible places in each of us. Places few would understand, and marriage, I’ve come to believe, is about finding someone who understands the right things without digging up the wrong ones.” At her father’s funeral she reunites with a former teacher, a New Zealand-native named Danny. When Danny says she’s going on a pilgrimage through Japan’s numerous temples, Rio decides to tag along. Along the trail, the women start hiking with a young law student named Shinobu. What Rio discovers about herself as well as her father may affect her life back in the United States.
“I can be hafu, if I want; I can always find someone to call me incomplete. But I can be whole, too; I can be unsplit and complete in the fragmented way that a life is a life.”
Pull Me Under is an exquisitely dark psychological thriller which examines identity and place through its compelling protagonist and story. It’s easy to empathize with Rio and understand her motivations to minimize her Japanese ancestry. Author Kelly Luce provides detailed descriptions –“Ryozenji is all worn stone and dark, weathered wood. A pond with a fountain sits in the middle. Goldfish swarm the edge where an old woman tosses bread. She pinches off a piece and holds it out. A white and orange spotted fish jumps fully out of the water.”–and fascinating cultural elements—“I fill my basket with the candies I loved as a kid: sesame sticks, caramel frogs, tubes of sugar decorated with astrological signs.” Every aspect of this novel creatively allows readers to become fully absorbed from beginning to end.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.