Book Nook: ‘Pull Me Under’ captures complexity of mixed races, multiple identities

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I never thought I would empathize with a murderer.

Kelly Luce’s first novel, “Pull Me Under,”portrays a fictional Japanese-American woman named Rio Silvestri. But Rio has a dark past; as a 12-year-old named Chirzuru Akitani and living in Japan, she murdered her bully. The novel focuses predominantly on the adult character Rio, who returned to Japan after the death of her estranged father, with glimpses of her horrifying past interspersed.

Some hints from the book help the reader pinpoint when Rio must have been a child in Japan. This is key to the story, because as a hafu, or mixed race child (half Irish and half Japanese), in Japan in the 1970s, Rio was set to be an outcast from her birth. One of this instances this is highlighted is when Rio returns to Japan

“‘Rio…’ he repeats after I introduce myself. ‘Interesting name.’ He peers at my nose. ‘Freckles!’ he cries, stepping back.

“‘Irish mother,’ I say. After nearly twenty years in the States, I’d forgotten about people like this. They look at you like they’re trying to get you in focus and failing. I’m short, with a small nose and fine bones; there is no doubting I’m East Asian. I used to stand at the bathroom mirror and pretend I was someone else, a stranger giving me a quick passing glance. Did I look Japanese enough?”

Examples of Rio’s identity struggles like this is where my empathy comes into play. I’m the same mix of Irish and Japanese, and Rio’s struggle of not quite fitting it truly resonated with me. While I never experienced anything as extreme as Rio, her psychological struggle with feeling like she was never a whole person is one that many people straddling cultures can understand.

Rio’s stranding between two identities adds layers to her story as she travels to Japan to attend her father’s funeral. While there, she begins to face her past and try to reconcile it to the life she leads now: troubled youth Chirzuru, versus wife and mother Rio.

Mechanically, the book was also interesting in that it started out in past tense, but after the opening chapter, moved into  present tense. Now, I’ve objected before to present tense narrative writing on the grounds it can feel forced and draw the reader out of the story. However, Rio’s internal turmoil demands the reader struggle with her, so the use of present tense is highly effective in this case.

“Pull Me Under” became available November 2016, and is being sold by most major booksellers. I wholeheartedly recommend this book and hope you can have that odd feeling of understanding a murderer.

Dixie Sun rating: 5 suns