By Ann Bauer

Scribner. 278 pp. $24

Lucky people have the privilege of losing their innocence a little at a time, their childhoods eclipsed gradually by the inevitable darkness of a more complex adulthood. Only the unlucky can point to a moment when their youth disappeared altogether, its candle snuffed in a single, brutal instant.

There's a poignant moment early in Ann Bauer's first novel, A Wild Ride Up the Cupboards, when Rachel, the novel's narrator, recognizes the end of her own innocence. Rachel and her husband, Jack, and their children have been invited to dinner at the home of friends. Everything lies before the young family -- the hope of prosperity, good health, the comfort of their attachment to one another -- and Rachel believes she has enough faith and endurance to steer them all toward a happy future. She leans against Jack's shoulder, staring into the lovely candlelight of the dinner table, listening to the sounds of the children playing nearby. It is the last such moment of calm Rachel will enjoy for a long, long time, and later, when she looks back at that peaceful evening, it is with a sense of anguish for the loss of everything that has passed from her. "I think of it now as the end of youth," she says.

Loss of innocence usually arrives by a couple of familiar figures, Love and Death, and this novel employs both. When 3-year-old Edward, Rachel and Jack's enchanting firstborn son, begins to display signs of what looks like autism, Rachel suffers the first of many deaths recognizable to anyone who has watched a child disappear in this agonizing way. Her love and grief and Edward's withdrawal are catalogued with precision: "He was round-cheeked and golden-haired but sometimes his whole face looked dead. He'd chewed holes in some of his clothes. Overnight, he would no longer let me hug him. The day before, I'd found him on his bed holding one hand in front of his eyes and turning it slowly."

The sorts of casualties that might follow are predictable, but Bauer's sensitivity to this family's suddenly perilous course and the suffering of everyone involved gives A Wild Ride Up the Cupboards the feel of something being watched at uncomfortably close range. This is a triumph of good writing, and it bears us so close to the feelings of the characters that we cannot set the book aside without anxiety for what will happen next.

Our compulsion to watch the family's undoing, however, is diverted by a parallel story so interesting it very nearly unseats the present-day narrative. Edward's decline and the family's simultaneous falling apart are interrupted by the story of Rachel's uncle Mickey. Rachel never knew her uncle -- he died before she was born -- but her mother's revelation that Mickey and young Edward share some characteristics sets Rachel off on a course to discover whether Mickey's life holds answers that might explain her son's condition.

Bauer tells Mickey's story without clumsy artifice -- there's a shift from Rachel's desperate first-person perspective to a cooler third-person narration, and the chapters are simply inserted into the other narrative, with no accounting for how Rachel might know about these events except through a limited collection of letters saved by her aunt. The Mickey story, spanning the decades of World War II and the war in Korea, comes as a kind of relief against Rachel's anguish and exhaustion, and the portrait of this elusive man is full of restrained pathos: the little boy in his first "long woolen pants and a white-collared shirt" at the funeral of his older brother, who dies in childhood of scarlet fever; his mysterious gift for "spatial relations," which earns him a job as an air traffic controller during the Korean War; his postwar career as a watchmaker, where "the cogs and springs inside a watch face made sense in the same way planes had when they flew across that perfect dome of sky." I found myself wishing that this second story, though clearly intended as background to the first, had been allowed more of a life of its own.

Many people grow up in this novel -- young Edward and his siblings, Rachel and Jack -- and not all of them arrive, panting but victorious, at the crest of the hill. A happy ending would be absurd here, and Bauer wisely stays clear of easy conclusions: valuable lessons learned, love triumphant, differences reconciled. Nonetheless, she steers this family through dreadfully difficult waters with a sense of the possibility of those things, and in the end those possibilities -- and the sad, enigmatic ghost of Mickey -- make A Wild Ride Up the Cupboards more than just an account of the end of innocence. It is also a story about how wisdom is acquired, one giant step at a time. *

Carrie Brown's most recent novel is "Confinement." She teaches at Sweet Briar College.