The Sanskrit word maya refers to the veil of illusion that one must pierce in order to experience the transcendent nature of reality. For the purposes of this review we might think of it as a layer of gauze cocooning some of us in private spaces apart from the world.

Samantha Harvey's unnamed narrator in "Dear Thief" tears at this gauze in a single epistle composed in sections over the course of half a year. The letter is addressed to Nina, known affectionately as Butterfly, a friend the narrator hasn't seen since she disappeared 18 years before. Nina is a devotee of Hinduism, and the novel begins as an answer to the question she asked the narrator long ago: if she'd seen through "the gauze of this life."

By way of the story of her uncanny experiences along the Thames the night of her grandmother's death, the narrator responds, "If this could be one example of seeing through the gauze of life, then the answer to your question is resoundingly yes, I have seen through it."

As the book goes on, the letter opens up to inform Nina about the narrator's life since they've seen each other and to consider the time they spent together. Because of the intimacy of the letter and the common reference points it assumes with its addressee, the reader is kept at a bit of a distance from the emotions of the book. It's only as the key plot points emerge that the significance of the relationship can be appreciated. In this, the structure neatly mimics the gauze of Nina's question. The peeks through the gauze are earned, and when they come they allow for a deeper understanding of what led up to them.

Most important, the role of the narrator's husband, Nicolas, in the two women's friendship is revealed gradually — as is Nina's role in their marriage. As the full story emerges, we begin to understand the weight behind the narrator's retrospective identification of Nina with Shiva. She recalls Nina saying, "This is why three is a transformative number. Brahma and Vishnu — creation and preservation — these are two lines. It is Shiva that transforms them into something new."

Nina does transform the couple, and her destructive presence in the book is felt all the more because of her absence.

Scott F. Parker's most recent book is "Conversations With Ken Kesey." He lives in Minneapolis.