The first sentences of Marie Mockett's debut novel could be read as a challenge to herself, setting out as a writer: "My mother always told me that there is only one way a woman can be truly safe in this world. And that is to be fiercely, inarguably, and masterfully talented." If this is the standard Mockett has set for herself, "Picking Bones From Ash" meets it easily.

Satomi, coming of age in 1950s Japan, finds safety for herself and her single mother in a mastery of the piano. Satomi's natural talent provides shelter from the rumors and anger that circulate around her mother: unmarried, beautiful and owner of a pub, she is a target for the jealous wives in town. As Satomi navigates her teenage years, her mother relents to social pressure and marries a widower with daughters of his own. Only when disaster strikes does Satomi recognize the fissure between herself and her mother, with terrible consequences.

The story line then shifts to 1980s San Francisco, where a girl named Rumi lives with her father, Francois -- a seemingly minor character from the prior story line, but apparently Rumi is the daughter of Francois and Satomi, whose death remains an off-limits topic in their household. Rumi, under the tutelage of her father, is learning the art and commerce of antiques dealing; she is also learning of her own inarguable talent -- she can hear the stories of inanimate objects. One such story leads Rumi to believe the ghost of her mother is calling her to Japan, to sort out both of their histories and debts owed to the family matriarch. As the story lines converge, Mockett combines the best elements of a mystery story, ghost story, magical realism and the complex difficulties in deciding what is "best" for our elders and offspring.

The characters in a multi-generational/multicultural story can at times seem to be ancillary to the settings, and what happens with them has to play second fiddle to the elaborate descriptions of lands foreign and times long passed. Mockett strikes a delicate balance -- the imagery evoked here provides that multigenerational friction and insights into a foreign culture, but never at the expense of her characters and their inner struggles. The cultural and generational differences aren't ignored, but rather provide a sturdy framework for a more universal story -- mothers and daughters and the insoluble imprint they leave on each other.

Matthew Tiffany is book reviews editor for He blogs at