An intense and frequently dramatic first novel--the work (also see below) of an English-born American writer who formerly lived in the Middle East--skillfully counterpoints the stories of two emotional quests undertaken a half-century apart. In 1991, middle-aged Daniel Weiss comes to Jerusalem to bury his mother Esta, who had survived Hitler's Europe, and to seek information about his long-dead father, a British army officer whom he never knew. In an alternating narrative, which quite properly dominates the novel, we observe the mercurial wartime relationship between the haunted, wraithlike Esta (""Ghost by day, bird woman by night"") and young Archie Rawlins, assigned to British Intelligence in Cairo. Archie at first disbelieves Esta's phlegmatic recounting of her harrowing experiences, then vacillates between loving her helplessly and accepting ""official"" condemnation of her as a terrorist suspected of political assassination. He betrays her, loses her, finds and loses her again, in an agony of uncertainty that schools him in ""the impossibility of putting things right, and the inevitability of making things worse when...he tried to make them better."" Wilson's fixed concentration on his protagonist's confusion and guilt exposes the novel to a virtually claustrophobic monotony, but its tone is effectively varied by sensuous descriptive writing, including a complex and deeply suggestive articulation of bird imagery. And at least two supporting characters stand forth vividly: Esta's elderly and long-estranged father, a selfish weakling who nevertheless elicits both attention and respect; and Gerald Mendoza, the Jewish chaplain whose own unlikely survival simultaneously mocks and echoes the fate reserved for Archie Rawlins. Though its climax and denouement too closely recall the savage resolution of Paul Bowles's classic The Sheltering Sky, Wilson's debut does exhibit specific individual strengths, as well as an original vision--of the tragedy of war as a chaos of missed connections.