THE ageing writer, garlanded with a knighthood and with a number of highly regarded novels behind him, comes to Japan, a place where he was once happy and creative.

But no matter how old he is, no matter how far he travels, an incident from his distant past is catching up, fast.

The writer in J David Simon's highly accomplished and moving novel is Edward Strathairn, who is in his mid-70s. Born in Glasgow, he had become interested in Japan while still at school, partly through an uncle who had journeyed widely in the Orient. It is through a bequest in the uncle's will that Edward, although he has graduated from Glasgow University, is able to resume his education. Despite the objections of the uncle's lawyer, who needs no reminding about the role of the Japanese in the war, he elects to undertake Japanese studies in London. Thus he abandons his plan to become an English teacher, and thus is the course of his life set.

As the book opens, in 2003, Sir Edward has arrived, his personal assistant in tow, at the resort hotel in Hakone, Japan, where, back in the late 1950s, during a beautiful, snow-bound winter, he had written the book that made him famous.

Entitled The Waterwheel, it was a love story set during the Occupation of Japan. The Japanese, defeated and demonised after the war, were grateful to him for helping to restore some of their self-esteem. They regard him as something of a hero, still. To the Americans, however, the book was anathema as it addressed the sense of injustice over the treatment of the Japanese, over the firebombings of Tokyo and the nuclear horrors visited upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Americans never saw why they should have to atone for a strategy that ended the war in the Pacific. He never understood why so many people could just be wiped out like that.

Simons takes us back and forth through time and through the layers of Strathairn's life: to the Glasgow where he grew up, to 1950s London, where he studied and, while standing in line at the lying-in-state of King George VI, first encountered Macy, a talented, assured young American painter with whom he gradually begins a relationship.

We follow him on his first trip to Japan. We brush past an ageing Churchill, standing alone in the Savoy, "a despondent king deserted by his subjects". We witness a calamitous domestic incident in New York in 1971. Finally, as you suspect it might, the book turns full circle: Hakone, Japan, 2003.

Sir Edward himself is in uncertain health. His mind is still sharp, however, and his memories still vivid – of Macy, of his first sightings of Japan, of the place where he wrote The Waterwheel. Nor are his artistic impulses entirely dead: he has the "occasional thought for his new idea of a comedic novel", and his libido is capable of stirring again. But such happenings are strictly isolated. He is, after all, an old man.

We are left guessing about the nature of the incident that is dogging Sir Edward. Early on, his personal assistant warns the hotel manager that this is strictly a private visit. Later, she refers to unspecified rumours.

When the incident finally comes to light, we feel its impact, and get a sense of the earth crumbling beneath his feet. It says much for Simons's skill that he can show us a Strathairn who for all his flaws and occasional selfishness can engage our sympathies when he finally realises the cost of his own denial.