Jan Blensdorf, . . Overlook, $23.95 (152pp) ISBN 978-1-58567-443-5

Blensdorf, an Australian journalist, spins two years she spent in Tokyo into a brief, poetic novel about a Japanese-American woman's search for herself amid displacement, tragedy and cultural conflict. "I don't know what it is that is broken," muses the narrator at the novel's opening. "Only that I slip in and out of a mental wakefulness that can't translate itself to speech, to movement." Confined to a hospital bed, she recounts her tumultuous family history, starting with the sudden death of her American father when the family was living in New York. The girl and her mother return to Japan to live with the girl's uncle, a dark brute with little patience for American ways. She recalls her study of calligraphy and painting, and her mother's unhappiness and eventual suicide, weaving in memories of a more recent past, in which she inherits the family's incense shop and becomes the de facto confessor of her troubled clients, shielded by a screen and the nom de guerre Sei Shonagon, the 10th-century author of The Pillow Book . Sei meets her demanding future husband through her uncle, who becomes infuriated when the unhappy couple divorces. She then falls in love with Alain, a French photographer who comes "to write about the otherness of this country in images." But bliss is not to be, as her uncle becomes an avenging force in a simultaneously reserved and shocking climax. Blensdorf's controlled prose, weighty with description and portentousness, can be beautiful but also murky, and the plot's stab at suspense falls short. Still, this is an affecting debut, a troubling story with bits of brightness. Foreign rights sold in France, Greece, Holland, Iceland, Spain and the U.K. (Nov.)