Joyce Hackett, . . Carroll & Graf, $25 (277pp) ISBN 978-0-7867-1046-1

Defiantly out of the ordinary and meticulously composed, this intensely inward-focused novel narrates the wanderings of Isabel Masurovsky, a former child prodigy cellist adrift in Italy. Isabel's father, Yuri, is a survivor of Theresienstadt, the Nazi concentration camp for high-level prisoners. In Brooklyn after the war, he pressures his gifted daughter to perform. Her Carnegie debut at 14 is a smashing success, but soon afterward her parents are killed in an accident, and she gives up the cello. Ten years later, she appears in Milan, beside the dead body of Signor Perso, the old man who has been her teacher, lover and caretaker since her parents' death. Deprived of the one person who knows her past, she stumbles into the Milan winter, taking a job as viola teacher for 16-year-old Clayton Pettyward, the withdrawn son of a rich American, who hums incessantly and names all his tropical fish after Isabel. She also crosses paths with Giulio, a plastic surgeon and gigolo who is as detached in his own way as she is in hers, and they embark on a curious love affair. Hackett's dense, staggered narration skips from present to past and back again, building up an unusual yet wholly credible portrait of Isabel, who religiously practices self-denial until a tragic accident makes her realize how destructive her behavior has become. The novel concludes with her visit to Theresienstadt, where she is determined to burn a valuable cello belonging to Clayton's father. Incisively written and often inspired, this keenly imagined novel earns admittance to a small collection of similarly uncompromising, stylistically distinctive novels, among them the works of Jean Rhys and Jane Bowles. (Oct.)