Anja the Liar, By Thomas Moran, Riverhead, 320 pp., paperback, $14
In his fifth novel, ''Anja the Liar," Thomas Moran delves deeper into the thorny thematic terrain that he's explored throughout his body of work: how attitudes toward betrayal and trust exist against complex political backdrops and, more important, are shaped by them. His third and perhaps best-known novel, ''Water, Carry Me," told the story of a savvy medical student in war-torn Ireland. Her family is riddled with shady political alliances and IRA connections, which hamper her ability to trust the man who falls in love with her. In ''The Man in the Box," his first work, he put more sinister, creepier twists on themes found in Anne Frank's diary. The protagonist, a Jewish doctor fleeing the Nazis, is provoked to speculate on the motives of the Austrian patriarch who hides him in a makeshift loft space.
In ''Anja the Liar," Moran revisits World War II and evokes such powerful literary voices as Primo Levi and Jerzy Kosinski, who survived the Holocaust and recorded with hauntingly gorgeous prose the grisly experience of refugees: reassembling a personal identity and establishing a life with the shadows of war and the ghosts of their past shackled to their consciousness.
Moran homes in on how the ability to manipulate memory is the most crucial postwar survival skill, but one that comes with grave conflict. So much of the characters' energy goes into guarding or modifying the past that the resulting tension between concealing and sharing themselves makes them nearly incapable of forging a future. As they shed their thick, protective coat of lies, Moran makes their increased ease in relating something we can almost touch.
The novel begins at the war's end. Walter Fass, a former Wehrmacht captain of Italian origins who was conscripted by the Germans while studying in Berlin, notices Anja, a young Pole, at a displaced persons camp. Before being held as a POW, he fought in Yugoslavia, where he lost his arm in a raid that he can only obliquely refer to, if remember at all.
Hopping around emotional landmines, Anja and Walter tenuously cultivate a relationship, or, rather, a mutual affirmation of the other's existence, which is really all either is capable of. At first they meet ''with no enthusiasm or real interest, only for the sound of each other's voices," but the continuity they proceed to offer each other signals promise, a reminder of the possibilities of trust.
Moran's tone can seem uneasily coy at times, but his overall investigation of the psychology of survival is thorough and hard-hitting, and his sense of history is finely tuned. It's easy to make out the author's reverence for the tenacity of survivors as they battle memory: ''Walter's lost six years were, in a way, more of a handicap than his missing arm. He was not whole in the world. And neither was she. The difference was that Walter hadn't caused either of his losses. But she had deliberately tried to amputate part of her life."
Walter and Anja marry, and Walter's pal, Dizzi, marries Sisi, Anja's Hungarian friend in the DP camp. Moran captures the desperate clinginess of the women's relationship with a casually sexy edge, a glimmering sizzle of hope amid so much desolation. With papers in hand identifying Anja as the German she is not, Walter brings her to his family's estate in Bolzano, Italy. Inevitably, hints of passion drift into their ''business arrangement," trust grows, and Anja reveals her Polish identity. Her confession unlocks her capacity to identify emotions, but it also arouses suspicions in Walter. In Krakow, she was an informant for a German official, a way of life defined by rules that spell out when and to what degree one must lie and use people. She instinctively reverts to these rules, and Moran discloses them gradually, building up to a moment when Anja must decide to apply them in her new life, which is now largely devoted to her infant daughter.
But the same rules can easily be used against her, which becomes clear when the Chetnik woman who rescued Walter appears and insinuates herself into their marriage. Mila, a shrewd gold-digger, befriends Anja and seduces Walter into carrying out both business and personal transactions. In the book's second half, Moran moves from battlegrounds to bedrooms, releasing his powerful grip on history and succumbing to the trappings of melodramatic movie-house noir. Reflections on guilt and desire get heavy-handed as the scheming and string of infidelities unfurl. But by the end, Moran's sly trick is apparent: By having his characters identify and navigate everyday moral quagmires, they learn to drown out the blare of their pasts.
Liza Weisstuch is a freelance writer living in Cambridge.