Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce

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“What if there was a fork in the road a long time ago, and I took the wrong path?” asks Rio Silvestri, the narrator of Kelly Luce’s debut novel, Pull Me Under. Rio’s question is a fundamentally human one: would my present be better if not for my past? In Luce’s hands, the answer is a nuanced dance across many decades and between two countries. Rio must reconcile her fraught childhood in Japan as Chizuru Akitani—an infamous juvenile delinquent—with her painstakingly constructed life in America. Pull Me Under offers a lush map of one woman’s journey through the ramifications of her choices and the nature of forgiveness.

Pull Me Under opens with a news clipping from Kyoto Wow!, an English-language news magazine: “Twelve-year-old Chizuru Akitani, Japanese-American daughter of acclaimed violinist and Living National Treasure Hiro Akitani, walked into the staff room of Ishii Elementary, covered with blood and clutching a letter opener.” The blood belonged to Tomoya Yu, Chizuru’s relentless bully, whom she had killed in outburst of frustration. Chizuru is sent to Kawano Juvenile Recovery Center. Despite the absence of familial support—with her mother lost to suicide and her father to his famed musical career—Chizuru finds some solace after years of struggling with her weight and cultural perceptions of her mixed-race heritage. Gardening and exercise help her soothe what she calls the “black organ” responsible for her violent outburst. At twenty, through a lucky scholarship fluke, she is admitted to UC Boulder. By this time Chizuru’s father has all but disowned her, and she is ready to leave her Japanese citizenship and even her name behind. Enter: Rio.

For a while, Rio’s new life is postcard perfect. She trains to be a nurse. She sheds “Akitani” for “Silvestri” when she marries an Italian puzzle-enthusiast named Sal, and together they have a daughter. Rio’s husband knows little about her life in Japan and nothing of Tomoya Yu. Rio tells herself marriage “is about finding someone who understands the right things without digging up the wrong ones.” After all, Sal is “a Good Husband, a bona fide family man,” who wants more children and dreams of moving into a pristine planned community called Tuscany Terrace. Rio’s secret, however, continues to color her thoughts. She is wary of Tuscany Terrace, perceiving in the community a phoniness that echoes back her own. “I told [Sal] you can’t buy into the neighborhood of perfect lives,” Rio says, well aware that while she has masked her former self, she hasn’t escaped Chizuru and her accompanying guilt.

Luce’s first-person narration moves gracefully between memory, reflection, and present action, revealing Rio’s evolving psychological state in elegant and accessible turns. For instance, after learning about her father’s death via a parcel sent by his lawyer, Rio reflects upon the fact that she cannot interpret the map of Tokushima Prefecture, where her father’s wake will take place. Nor can she read her father’s parting letter to her, written in Japanese. “I’ve accomplished the goal that drove me for years: leaving that life behind,” she says. “But I don’t feel proud… I feel like someone’s pointed out a hole in my favorite sweater.”

The parcel draws Rio back to Japan. She is hungry for reconnection and anxious about what she will find. Chizuru Akitani is still very much remembered in Japan and, for a short while, Rio is like a spy in her own homeland. She has a new identity; she is fully grown and fit. At her father’s funeral service, however, she encounters Daniela Townshend, a New Zealand native and her former English teacher. The encounter marks an intrusion of Rio’s past into Chizuru’s present, destabilizing the theater of Rio’s placid new identity. A theme of performance runs throughout Pull Me Under: Rio performs the role of saintly wife and mother, her father performs as an elite violinist, and even Daniela is described as reminiscent of a children’s theater director. Notions of performance and privacy also emerge in the elements of Japanese culture Luce interweaves throughout the narrative. Social interactions, for instance, are described as alternating between two concepts: “Honne is what you really think and feel; tatemae is the face you show to the world.”

Rio’s façade becomes increasingly fragile with each passing day spent in Japan. Sal, waiting for her return to America, wonders why she keeps extending her stay. Rio isn’t the only one keeping a secret, however. The more she learns about her father, and about Daniela, the angrier she becomes about the circumstance surrounding the incident that has shaped the course of her life. After confronting her once-revered English teacher, Rio asks “Why are people so obsessed with forgiveness?” She sees vulnerability in exoneration. “Unforgiveness is its own power,” she proclaims, perhaps equating the difficulty of walling of one’s life to a form of strength.

The irony is that Rio ultimately seeks forgiveness herself, both from Tomoya Yu’s parents and from her family. At the heart of Pull Me Under is the question of whether Rio’s loved ones will still love her back once they know her secret. Down the path not taken is Rio’s “phantom me,” a woman whose “life is not tangled in knots, because she made the hard decision to tell the truth when she first had the chance.” For Rio, unraveling those knots means revealing her whole self and coming to terms with what she has done, even when the world cannot.

How do we seek redemption, Luce asks, for an unredeemable act? Rio shows us the full scope of a woman’s life: a single violent incident and the choices made in the aftermath. Pull Me Under is a heart-wrenching, devastating read, in part because all of us, at least in some small way, possess a “black organ”—a sense of darkness threatening to make itself known. In this dazzling debut novel, Luce reminds us that life is often as much about becoming the person we want to be, as it is about understanding the person we have always been.

Allegra Hyde is the author of the story collection Of This New World, which won the John Simmons Short Fiction Prize. For more, visit www.allegrahyde.com. More from this author →