THE GARDENS OF KYOTO, by Kate Walbert. Scribner, 288 pp., $24.

SO MANY FIRST novels adhere cautiously to the author's personal experience.

Not so Kate Walbert's "The Gardens of Kyoto." This resonant, moving story is

ambitious and complex almost to a fault. Walbert writes of the period spanning

World War II and the Korean War, when "there were rules to follow and

expectations" that tragically resulted, for young men, in going off to war

without question and, for women, in passively accepting circumscribed lives.

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"The Gardens of Kyoto" is about heartbreaks you can't shake and the domestic

ravages of war that linger long after the armistice.

Walbert, author of the short story collection "Where She Went," packs a

remarkable range of topics into what is at heart the story of an unhappy

mother's life as told to an offstage daughter. It encompasses several tales of

lost love, as well as the varied responses of three unwed mothers to the

narrow-minded mores of their time.

"You have to understand: In those days to be unwed and pregnant was the end

of your life," Walbert's narrator, Ellen, tells her daughter in a statement

whose import we don't fully understand until much later in the book. Equally

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central is the theme of men damaged by war: "They pretended to be fine, but if

you looked, you'd see that they were not fine at all," Ellen says. And then, in

a new paragraph-a device Walbert often employs for extra punch-she adds, "We

weren't supposed to look."

Walbert's first chapter won both a Pushcart and an O. Henry Prize when it

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was published in DoubleTake magazine as a separate short story. Its opening is

certainly a winner: "I had a cousin, Randall, killed on Iwo Jima. Have I told

you?" The voice is conversational, but elegiac and retiring rather than chatty

or bold. Walbert succeeds, impressively, at creating a narrator who is

convincing even when we come to realize that she is not always reliable.

Cousin Randall, who dies before his 18th birthday, when Ellen is barely 15,

becomes the defining romantic figure in Ellen's life. Would this have been so,

had he lived? Walbert doesn't address this issue, but the reader can't help

wondering how much is real and how much rose- tinged nostalgia. This is

especially so when Ellen intertwines thoughts of Randall with the Korean War

veteran she later loves despite his fixation on one of her friends, a

well-drawn, profane Bryn Mawr graduate who sounds as if she stepped out of a

Hemingway novel.

Ellen's narrative returns repeatedly to her handful of girlhood Easter

visits with Randall and his elderly, scholarly father in Sudlersville, Md.

Randall, a bookish loner, lives in a house he claims is haunted by the ghosts

of runaway slaves who sought shelter there when it was a depot on the

underground railroad-a history that his father later researches and confirms.

During Ellen's adolescent visits Randall initiates her into his lonely world of

secrets, including the room where slaves hid that he finds behind a trick

wall, and his true parentage, discovered snooping through a locked box of his

father's letters.

When Randall dies, he leaves his personal effects to Ellen: his diary, the

revelatory letter from his biological mother to his father purloined from the

locked box and, most important, a book called "The Gardens of Kyoto." The book

is by a horiculturist whom Randall's mother met aboard a ship to Europe early

in her pregnancy with Randall. When this woman reveals her true identity to

Randall in a letter on his 13th birthday that begins, "Dear son have

reached the age of truth," she encloses "The Gardens of Kyoto."

As it happens, Randall the snoop already knows who his biological mother

is. But he hadn't known about "The Gardens of Kyoto," and, oddly, this book has

a profound impact on him. He writes to Ellen in one of his monthly teenage

letters, "You can't even walk in these gardens because they're more like

paintings. You view them from a distance ...their fragments in relation."

Like her cousin, Ellen cherishes this odd little volume, which becomes a

central leitmotiv in Walbert's novel. This, clearly, is how Ellen regards her

life and Randall's-"from a distance," as "fragments in relation,"-and how

Walbert wants us to regard her narrative as well. I wish I could say that the

descriptions of various Kyoto landscapes interspersed throughout the

narrative-including a shrine to lost children whose freighted significance we

don't initially understand-resonate for me with the force of Walbert's tales of

unrequited love, the runaway slave who ships himself north in a crate or the

heartbreaking scenes at a veterans hospital, but they do not. Instead, the

metaphor, intended to highlight the obliqueness of so much experience, seems as

skittish as Walbert's blighted veterans.

How serious a problem is this willful preciousness? Amazingly, it is not

the fatal flaw one might expect of so central a weakness. There is too much

else of compelling interest in this subtle, painstakingly wrought novel of

sorrow and secrets.