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Pull Me Under Review

Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce

Reviewed by Jacob Hammer


The first thing that drew me to this book was, naturally, the cover. The black background featuring a woman or girl removing a mask of her own face drew me in right away. I went over to where it was displayed to get a closer look at the title that went with such an enticing graphic. As I read the inside jacket I thought it might be something that I wanted to read, but I was in the middle of a couple other books and I didn’t want to buy something new just yet. Throughout the next couple of weeks I kept returning to it as I walked around the store at work and re-reading the jacket, feeling its heft in my hands, and thinking about it until I finally caved and bought it.


I devoured Pull Me Under as it devoured me– it engages us with its complex characters and its quick pace. The prologue tells us about the past of the narrator starting at age twelve. The daughter of an aspiring American painter and an internationally acclaimed Japanese violinist, she’s bullied in school over her weight and for her mother being American. They call her Hafu (which means “half”) to constantly remind her of her mixed-heritage. Her mother dies and a few weeks later she retaliates against her classroom bully and accidentally kills him with a letter opener. She is immediately moved to a juvenile detention facility, but cannot remember what it is she has done nor will anyone tell her for some time. Her father visits her once and when he leaves they are both angry. He never visits again. When she turns twenty, she has to choose citizenship in either Japan or America. Her father has cut off all communication so she chooses to attend college in Colorado, to leave her former name of Chizuru Akitani behind in favor of Rio, and to start a new life in America. She becomes a nurse and gets married. They have a daughter named Lily and everything about her past is kept neatly under wraps to both her family and herself.


That is until a package arrives notifying Rio of the death of her father, Hiro, and the time of his funeral. Her husband and daughter offer to drop everything and go with her to Japan, but she insists on going alone. It will be the first time she has been back. When she arrives in her hometown it is at once very much the same and also different. As things almost always are when they are returned to. At her father’s funeral, she meets her favorite teacher growing up, Danny. She had been one of the only people address the bullying that Rio faced when she was younger and Rio had hoped she would visit while she was in the detention facility, though she had not. Rio asks her to translate a letter that her father sent on his death. Danny translates only cold remarks and disappointment. Rio is understandably upset by this and it leaves her craving more time with Danny. The next day she surprises Danny as she is getting ready to embark on the Shikoku pilgrimage around 88 temples. Danny had been planning on leaving without seeing Rio again, but now the two are roped into beginning the pilgrimage together.


They set off as Rio begins to recollect more and more details from her past. She brings up memories of her mother before her death, memories of her father, and also memories of the events leading up to her final conflict with her bully Tomoya Yu. It is hard for her to face these realities of her past, but the landscape and people around her continuously bring them to the forefront. Along

the trail they have several small adventures and meet a student attempting to pass his law exams and eager to practice his English, Shinobu. He travels with them through several temples and also translates the letter from Hiro again for Rio revealing that Danny left out several important details and completely distorted the tone of the letter as a whole. Most notably, that she and Hiro were having an affair at the time of Rio’s bullying and also that she has a key to her father’s house that is supposed to be given to Rio. She’s upset at this breach of trust and, while they are stranded by a powerful storm in a temple, strikes Danny during an argument. This shocks both of them and Danny leaves without telling Shinobu or Rio to continue on her own.


Rio and Shinobu track her down in a hospital nearby where she has gotten sick and injured from being out in the storm. They also discover that she has been hiding a worsening cancer relapse from them. She refuses to receive treatment and wants instead to be allowed to pass. Rio decides to help her do so in peace. All the while, Rio’s husband, Sal, has been becoming increasingly concerned about her lengthening stay and her lack of contact. He has also been beginning to put together some parts of her past. Rio is terrified by this and tells herself she will explain everything when she gets back. She travels from the hospital to Shinobu’s hometown to visit with him before returning home. From there she goes to her father’s house to reminisce and process all that has happened, but she left all of her identification at Shinobu’s. The police come and arrest her and place her in a special prison for foreigners because she cannot produce identification and is trespassing. Eventually she is able to get someone from the US embassy to contact Sal and he comes over. Things are incredibly tense and, even when Rio is released after some bureaucratic acrobatics and reunited with Sal and Lily, she and Sal still have to deal with the years of deception. Meanwhile Lily is beginning to fall in love with Japan and the heritage that she has been cut off from until now. Sal and Rio are able to come to terms with all that has come between them, for the most part, and Rio decides that she is going to finish the pilgrimage before returning to the states. Sal reluctantly agrees to this plan, but it is clear the wounds have not healed. Through all of this Rio has come to accept all the parts of her past and from there been honest enough with herself to share that past with those closest to her.


In some ways, this was a very easy to read book. The movement from the brief and matter-of-fact account in the prologue into the more expansive bulk of the book is seamless. The frequent use of flashbacks in the middle of the book feels effortless and tells us as readers only what we need to know about Rio and in small enough pieces that we are eager for more and never lose track of the main narrative. These flashbacks also harken back to and enrich our understanding of the account in the prologue and help to tie the entire novel together. Luce also does an excellent job familiarizing us with Japan through Rio’s eyes. Many things are still familiar to Rio, but through the lens of nostalgia. This allows the reader to access the landscape, customs, and language through Rio’s reacquaintance while staying immersed in the story. The idea of being half is also woven through the book expertly. Rio explores this initially through her racial identity, but as we move through the book, deepens this exploration to include her honesty to herself and eventually her honesty to those closest to her. This brings us all the way back to that eye catching cover. By the end of the novel we see Rio remove the mask that she has been wearing everywhere, fooling even herself. Together with her, we see the true Rio and we face the relief, the fear, and the road onward through the pilgrimage and home.

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