In his debut novel, "Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire," David Mura ("Turning Japanese") links the personal with the historical, as he spins a tale about a Japanese-American family that has trouble addressing their World War II internment camp experiences.

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“Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire”

by David Mura

Coffee House Press, 269 pp., $14.95

“Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire,” the debut novel by memoir-ist David Mura, is a memory book — or, rather, an obstruction-to-memory book.

It’s filled with doors onto the past that no one wants to open. Behind those doors lie family secrets, family shames, family puzzles. The biggest unknown of all for the book’s narrator is the internment camp experience his parents underwent during World War II, along with thousands of other West Coast Japanese-Americans, when on the basis of race alone they were imprisoned as a threat to national security.

Mura has touched on these issues before in his nonfiction (“Turning Japanese,” “Where the Body Meets Memory”). In “Famous Suicides” he handles them in a fluid, almost jazz-like manner, with a back-and-forth chronology that serves up clues and shocks to optimum effect. The book is multileveled, multifaceted and filled with period detail that will strike a chord with anyone of Mura’s generation (he was born in 1952). The characters are just the right mix of strong presence and impenetrable enigma — the way problem parents and siblings can often be. If the prose occasionally is a bit less sharp than one might wish, that’s compensated for by the complex feelings it conveys.

Japanese-American narrator Ben Ohara, in his 40s, is a happily married father who’s not entirely happy in his work. A high-school history teacher, he’s been struggling for years on a Ph.D. thesis titled “Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire,” his attempt to grapple with the notion that there’s a cult of suicide enshrined in Japanese culture. But the real subject that won’t let go of him is “the origins of my family’s grief and madness.” The novel is his account of coming to terms with this, starting with his memories of growing up one of the only “J.A.” kids in his rough Chicago neighborhood.

Ben’s descent into juvenile delinquency and his years in a couple of reform institutions form one narrative strand, with Mura nicely capturing the dynamics of a kid who’s acting out and doesn’t always know why. But it’s Ben’s family members who provide the central drama of the book: his younger brother Tommy (“blessed and cursed with a brilliant and lunatic mind”); their depression-prone father, who keeps disappearing from home until he never comes back; and their mother, a pragmatist who winds up taking over her husband’s old Chicago Transit Authority job along with all his parental duties. More prosperous aunts, uncles and cousins (“Visiting their house was like visiting royalty”) round out the picture.

Ben, as he writes, is the sole survivor of his family quartet, and has only his research skills and imagination to tell him why any of them took the turns they did. One thing he’s sure of: His parents’ total silence about their internment camp years didn’t help matters. His mother’s refusal to discuss “our messed-up J.A. history,” especially the consequences of his father being an internment-camp draft resister, poses a particular challenge to him: “Behind every defense I might penetrate she’d put up another, like an infinite labyrinth I’d never get through.”

Still, she’s his only real hope — for by the time he’s ready to confront her with the past, his father and brother have long since vanished from the scene.

Mura, in exploring the ambiguous dividing line between public event and personal psychodrama, does justice to both. The Ohara family, far from being generic victims, couldn’t be more particular in their foibles, flaws and defense mechanisms. Especially fine is the portrait of gifted, mercurial Tommy who, after descending through several circles of West Coast counterculture hell, simply walks out into the Mojave Desert one night and is never seen again. His absence, like his father’s, is a given that troubles Ben from the beginning of his narrative.

Quibbles: Ben, in referring to his mother’s Seattle background, flubs the spelling of Puyallup (“Pullayup”). Shelley Duvall’s name is misspelled too, and a handful of sentences don’t track the way they should.

But “Famous Suicides” hits most of its marks, often when you least expect it.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@ seattletimes.com. He has been The Seattle Times book critic since 1998, and has also published four novels.