Kelly Luce will be here on Wednesday, November 2nd at 7pm!
Kelly Luce’s debut novel Pull Me Under has — no kidding — been one of my most anticipated books of the year. There is a little calendar hanging next to my desk with the November release date circled in bright yellow marker. And for good reason! Luce’s collection Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail became an instant favorite of mine when it was published in 2013. It’s all things surreal and weird and wonderful, blending up Japanese folklore into magical narratives.
Pull Me Under thankfully doesn’t stray far from Three Scenarios — even if the world is a bit more grounded. Returning to Japan, this novel follows the life of Rio Silvesti — born as Chizuru Akitani — the Japanese-American daughter of a famous violin player, a certified “National Treasure of Japan,” as we are often reminded. At age twelve, in a sudden act of violent rebellion, Chizuru fatally stabs her schoolyard bully with a golden letter opener. Her teenage years are spent incarcerated in a mental hospital, estranged from her family. It’s here she first muses on having within her a malevolent “black organ” swelling up like an “infected gland” whenever darker, more violent emotions unsettle her mind. Throughout the rest of her life, she gauges the good times from the bad by how acutely she can feel this organ inside her body, the happiest moments being those where it’s barely noticeable at all. When as an adult Chizuru is finally released from the hospital, she leaves Japan and establishes a new life in the United States. Changing her name to Rio, she graduates college in Colorado, builds a career, marries, and raises a daughter of her own. Decades go by and Rio’s past life is mostly forgotten and even completely hidden from her new family. Yet this story truly takes off when Rio is sent notice of her father’s unexpected death and she is forced to travel across the globe, confronting the ghosts of her past.
Luce’s prose is sharp and powerful, rising to heights when conjuring a sense of nostalgia and homecoming for places that readers have likely never been. The Japan of Pull Me Under does not read as a caricature of the country, but rather a genuine experience that at times is both atmospheric and nearly tangible. After having just arrived to her old home nation, Rio delights in her first bites of onigiri as the taste conjures back the few good memories from childhood. Crumbs of rice fall from her mouth because she’s smiling so much. The attention and care that Luce spends on just this first quick meal at once establishes and sells the rest of the setting to the reader. But the main force of the narrative lies with the psychologically dense and compelling protagonist. Her voice, although remarkably strong-willed, is written as hauntingly lonely; her past hidden and her own identity still not fully realized.
Pull Me Under does so much so well. The mystery surrounding the plot and the family drama can hook you as a reader, but it’s the emotions and inner workings of the narrator’s mind as you flip through the pages that will keep you fed. -Matthew, Events Coordinator