Key Points:

A quest for identity and understanding. A quest both geographical and internal that takes over the alphabetically symmetrical Adam Anker.

On a bright summer day, Adam's daughter dies in a callous, anonymous accident. She is Miriam - Mimi - of the title, and her loss leaves Adam purposeless and arid. He will never know her. He doesn't even know himself. He starts this story on one island in the Waitemata; ends it on another, half the world away, as he heads for Poland where he was born and Sweden where he was shaped. He's a musician who, after 60 years, is just starting to understand his own art and his own silences.

Throughout the narrative, he comes closer to them in a series of respectfully, convincingly evoked settings. There is Waiheke, "where houses are secondary to decks"; the "gentle, filtered light" of Krakow; the night sky over Stockholm; an apartment redolent with culture and loss; even the distinctive sensation of landing at Wellington Airport.

After decades of absence, he journeys also into other people's stories. There are recollections of, or meetings with, his glacial mother, the running friend of his adolescence, a blind old woman on a Wellington hillside, the young Swedish artist who once possessed his life.

Music marks his way: "Handel, Mozart, Albinoni, Purcell", and his own. So do chess, remembered deaths and separations, and even Baltic herrings. Things start arrowing towards one final encounter, which after so many partings, closes the book with a tenuous reconciliation. Sonata for Miriam is both tender and harrowing, suffused with loss and longing.

It's a mystery story as well as a narrative of identity, rich and sometimes dense with memories. It is written with great care and respect - for the events, the people and places, the integrity of thoughts and words.

The language is lyrical, lilting, sometimes lush. Dialogue and imagery occasionally strain; there's an intermittent swelling into rather sententious moralising.

Short, stanza-sized chapters track Adam's fragmented life and thoughts, his evasions, chance meetings, reluctant re-engagements with the world.

An honest and intently wrought novel, and one with the extra dimension of an author who belongs in New Zealand but can still view it from outside, who sees the "precarious ... sliver of volcanic rock newly risen from an eternity of surrounding sea"; the variety and individuality of its immigrant peoples, and how even the goods on supermarket shelves can seem "innocent, without history".

Sonata for Miriam
By Linda Olsson (Penguin $37)

* David Hill is a Taranaki writer.