Michael Pye, . . Knopf, $24 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-375-41436-7

An agonizing moral issue beats at the heart of this searching novel about individual survival at the cost of complicity with evil. Based on the case of a real woman, Pye's narrative examines the shady life of fictional Lucia Muller-Ross, who spirited vanloads of valuable antiques entrusted to her by their Jewish owners out of Berlin and into Switzerland at the end of WWII. Sixty years later, Lucia is the elderly, proud and respected owner of an antiques shop in Zurich, when Sarah Freeman, a Holocaust survivor, spies in the store's window a table she once owned. Sarah's anguished need for emotional restitution sparks a tragic upheaval in Lucia's family. Lucia's son, Nicholas, a middle-aged professor and historian, has never allowed himself to think about his mother's murky past. Lucia's granddaughter, Helen, who has been unaware of the accusations leveled against her grandmother in a postwar court case in which she was acquitted, now feels a compulsion to bring Lucia to justice. Pye's (The Drowning Room) taut, restrained prose eschews melodrama, though flashbacks to the nights when Berlin was pounded by Allied bombing are vividly rendered. In the book's most harrowing scene, "the blast bombs [were]: timpani and fire... the sky was all neon," as nine-year-old Nicholas, alone in Lucia's apartment, watches the city die. Despite Pye's control, he leans too heavily on the repetition of "anger" and "rage" to describe the characters' inner emotions. An Englishman who becomes Sarah's friend, meant to provide another perspective on wartime moral ambiguity, is more a device than a rounded character. Yet the tension mounts, and the last few chapters reveal the terrible price Lucia paid for her amoral (but perhaps excusable?) behavior. In the end, this penetrating psychological study reverberates with an urgent message: life consists of choices, and all have long-lasting consequences. (Feb. 28)

Forecast:This book could be a good handsell to serious readers who may also buy Alon's The Pity of It All and Goldhagen's A Moral Reckoning.