Kuraj, by Silvia di Natale

All you need to know on preparing a Tushan corpse for sky-burial

This is the historical hinge on which Silvia Di Natale's novel, Kuraj (translated from the Italian by Carol O'Sullivan and Martin Thom) turns. Her heroine is the daughter of a clan chief of Tushan nomads - descendants of Genghis Khan - who enlists with the Germans, is fatally wounded, and passes his 10-year-old daughter to a German officer. He becomes her foster-father and takes her back to Cologne.

Di Natale is an ethnographer, now settled in Germany. This slant, plus the congruence between her own reality and her imaginative reality, leads to an awkward hybrid. Having steeped herself in Central Asia's history and culture, she sets out to weave a fictional tapestry; in flashbacks, Genghis Khan and his chums converse in direct speech. Her bibliography suggests these are authentic borrowings from contemporary accounts, but in her narrative they feel faked.

Di Natale suggests, obliquely, that this is a real tale told her by a Central Asian refugee, but nobody could have such total recall. This puts us in the world of the author's imagination, where every image must work as both fiction and fact. So we get intensive seminars on nomad life, about the structure of the clan encampment and how nomads move up and down mountains following the seasons. We learn how to kill a sheep, and how to prepare a corpse for sky-burial; ceremonial finery is described in minute detail.

Di Natale's prose style is tasteful-portentous, and she's got just one fictional weapon: the dislocated observations of the "Martian" approach once used by the poet Craig Raine. The heroine uses yurt-standards to assess her German home, and nomad mores to judge her hosts. This sometimes creates a fruitful alienation effect. Cutting her plait, and getting a nose-job to look more Western, she endures profound culture-shock; with the stones of her German garden, she builds a Mongol prayer-dome. In the end, the moral is banal: if you're lucky, your place of exile can come to feel like home.