Pull Me Under starts with a premise we can all imagine in today’s world. A 12-year-old Japanese-American girl, bullied relentlessly by a classmate “releases her inner black organ” and kills her tormenter with a letter opener. (I haven’t given anything away—we are told this on the first page of the book.)
I noticed at a young age—four years old, five—a dark presence in my chest, a blackness, clinging to the back of my heart. Mostly the thing lay dormant and I could put it out of my mind. But occasionally it swelled like an infected gland. These were the times I felt hurt or angry, the sensations so closely linked that I never separated them until a therapist pointed out the difference. My anger was an organ.
The first chapter takes place in a juvenile detention center in Japan and describes Chizuru Akitani’s life there after the murder, including how no one (her father and favorite teacher, Danny, included) visits her. What little hope she has for happiness, when she falls in love with another detainee, is snatched away when he is transferred once their relationship is discovered. Leaving Chizuru to garden and run… and when she is released at eighteen, to “escape” to the United States to start over…
With a new name…
We next meet Chizuru as Rio Silvestri—a married nurse with a twelve-year-old daughter living in Boulder, Colorado. She has never told either her husband Sal or daughter Lily about her life as Chizuru; they know nothing about her childhood in Japan except that it wasn’t very happy. They don’t even know that her father was a world-famous violin player, considered a national treasure in Japan. Rio believes she has tamed Chizuru’s “black organ” by extreme long-distance running and she is a seemingly happily married mother.
When Rio receives a box and letter from Japan and finds out her father has died, she decides to return to Japan to attend the funeral. There, she sees Danny for the first time in years, and she and Danny embark on a spiritual pilgrimage together. Through this part of the book, we find out Danny has secrets of her own. We also find out the possible reasons behind Chizuru/Rio’s black organ as well what really happened all those years ago, what brought her to violence… and how these memories have tormented her into adulthood. Luce convincingly creates a deep and complex character in Chizuru/Rio, someone who struggles against her inner anger and fears—sometimes successfully and sometimes not so successfully.
Pull Me Under is told in immersive first person POV, as described by Donald Maass, literary agent and author of several craft books, in this way:
In recent years, POV has tended to become even more close and intimate than ever. So much so that it immerses us not in just what a protagonist or POV character sees, hears, thinks and feels, but in every thought, memory, musing, speculation, wonder and nuance of a character’s consciousness.
This close POV allows us as readers to see inside both young Chizuru and also adult Rio’s minds. It allows us to better understand her motivation to kill, to lie, and how she grapples with life challenges—not only as a young girl in detention but also later as a wife and mother. It is in turns fascinating and chilling—Luce did a convincing job at unnerving me with at times a clinical coolness—but it is also moving and insightful.
I don’t want to give away any secrets… this novel has plenty, along with lots of twists and turns that will keep you guessing at many things, including but not limited to, whether Rio will return to the U.S.? Will her husband and daughter find out about her past? And what is the real reason behind why her beloved teacher never visited her in juvenile detention? But the real story in this book is not the plot’s path, but of human nature. What drove Rio in the first place to make the decision to kill her classmate? It’s not so simple as it might appear at first glance. What drives anyone to release the black organ? Maybe sometimes too much has happened to allow us to keep it caged up, maybe sometimes there’s a primal undercurrent, but maybe sometimes there’s something else we aren’t even aware of.
Ultimately this is a story that helps understand the darkness we each may keep locked inside and the lengths we go to keep it safe and out of reach. Part suspense novel, part mystery, part coming of age, part human interest, Pull Me Under is a fascinating read about how an individual develops tools and coping mechanisms, but also how at times there may be no choice for survival but to unleash the darkness inside.
Have you read Pull Me Under? We’d love to hear what you think!
Link to buy Pull Me Under at your local independent bookstore (we love them!) or at Indiebound by clicking here.