WHY SHE LEFT US

By Rahna Reiko Rizzuto

HarperCollins. 295 pp. $24

Reviewed by Janice Nimura

Rahna Reiko Rizzuto's first novel pivots on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. But it's not really a tale of the camps. Though Rizzuto, whose mother was an internee, provides a well-researched sketch of the internment, what she is really writing about is family -- the stubborn misunderstandings, deep private griefs and irrational love that transcend ethnicity.

This is a piece for four voices: a brother, a sister, an uncle and a ghost. The ghost is Kaori Okada, a tough issei grandmother whose stark sense of right and wrong has been hardened by a violent marriage and the desperate poverty of the Depression. This is a woman who sent away her 12-year-old daughter, Emi, to work as a live-in maid and prevented her from returning home. "I still don't know what happened to her during those years, and I'm not sure I want to," she says.

Though we never find out either, Emi, aged 20, resurfaces just after Pearl Harbor, heavily pregnant with what turns out to be her second child. Her first, a boy named Eric, has already been adopted, but Kaori resorts to ruthlessness in order to retrieve him. "He's family," she declares flatly, though she has already fractured her own once before. Emi's older brother, Will, condemns his sister as a whore; younger brother Jack is paralyzed by the currents of enmity that fill the house.

Forced relocation to the Santa Anita racetrack and then to a camp in Colorado doesn't mend the cracks in the family. Will and Jack enlist to prove their loyalty, and Will is killed in action. Emi bears a daughter, Mariko; after the war Emi starts a new life in Hawaii, taking her little girl but leaving Eric behind. The remaining members of the family return to Los Angeles, where they live a sort of autistic life, each pursuing an agenda disconnected from the others.

That's a chronological summary, but Rizzuto's four-part retelling of events swoops from the '40s to the '90s and circles back to the decades in between. The winding narrative allows glimpses of half-revealed secrets from the start, but Kaori's memories must merge fully with Jack's, Eric's and Mariko's for the picture to be complete. Even then, we never arrive at anything like a simple explanation -- one of Rizzuto's recurring themes is that the flame of truth can be too bright to look at, and must be wrapped in a story to be perceived at all.

This elliptical quality is both evocative and frustrating. Rizzuto's characters are wonderfully well drawn -- jagged, honest and unpredictable -- but the temporal gaps in their stories are sometimes too wide. It's hard to reconcile 8-year-old Eric, trying with all his might to do the right thing, with the 16-year-old hood he becomes, "like James Dean but tougher." His uncle Jack metamorphoses from all-American boy to nisei enlistee, lying in a muddy trench in France while the men around him "break like dolls." Another leap forward transforms Jack into a bachelor with a paunch and a limp who spends too much time in pool halls. In 1990 Mariko finally begins to raise buried memories of her lost brother, but her life in Hawaii to that point remains blurry, and her mother Emi's growth from disgraced daughter to respect-able housewife is only vaguely implied.

Kaori is Rizzuto's finest creation, both proud matriarch and monster. Her voice is a constant, laying out the "bully memories" of the past but not quite bowing to the lessons they hold. In her rigid moral universe, the cardinal sin is entreaty; the long-ago moment when she was forced to beg her small daughter for help in a crisis has stung for decades. Emi's bastard babies confound her -- her daughter has "stirred right and wrong together until all the edges were gone."

Rizzuto illuminates aspects of the Japanese-American experience with sharp but sporadic snapshots: the predatory swarms of neighbors buying up the belongings of Japanese families before they are relocated, the grim humiliation of making a horse's stall into a temporary home. But the answer to "why she left us" -- why Emi left her family behind -- can't be found in her heritage, and may not exist at all.

A shelf of novels and memoirs has explored the Japanese internment, and countless more have examined the clashes between immigrants and their offspring, marching inexorably away from old values. What sets Rizzuto's novel apart is her narrow focus on a handful of flawed, striving, uncertain people, bound by blood and obligation but never quite managing to read each other's souls.

Janice Nimura is a writer living in New York.