Pull Me Under

13 of 25
Pull Me Under
272 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux

If you’ve never been to Japan but have imagined visiting its temples, sampling sushi in the land that invented it, or hanging out in a Tokyo cat café, Kelly Luce’s debut novel, Pull Me Under, will bewitch you.

After 12-year-old Chizuru kills her bully in a fit of rage, she is sent to a juvenile detention center, where she grapples with her grief and the monstrousness of her act. Her mother, an American who always felt out of place in Japan, has recently committed suicide. Her father, a Japanese violinist dubbed “Living National Treasure,” abandons his daughter in shame. When Chizuru, now 20, is released, she flees to the U.S. and changes her name to Rio after the Duran Duran song, which she and her mother loved. She enrolls in a Colorado university and meets her future husband, Sal, to whom she reveals nothing of her background. Only years later does a death draw Rio back to Japan, to reconcile the wife, mother, nurse, and obsessive runner she’s become with the chubby girl everyone laughed at until she took revenge.

The Japan Rio encounters is one she’s been avoiding most of her life, yet she finds its strangeness soothing, relishing the ubiquitous onigiri rice balls and other delicacies that make her “grateful to possess a tongue” and even delighting in the faux intimacy of the canned voice on the bus’s PA system. She savors it all—from the thrill of being on her own to the slow reawakening of memories long suppressed. Luce, who herself spent several years in Japan, has a clear affinity for the country—its Eastern-ness has seeped into her prose, infusing it with a techno exoticism, a sense of the unexpected. Like her protagonist, she went to Japan fearing its otherness: the impenetrability of the language, customs that would make her feel like an outsider. What she found, as Rio does, is that inhabiting the discomfort of the unfamiliar can let a truer, stronger voice emerge.

— Leigh Haber