HER PUBLISHER ONCE said about Rosa Guy that her "literary themes stem from the fact that she is black and a woman." I suppose this kind of labeling is inevitable, but it is misleading. For a great strength of Guy's work is her ability to peel back society's labels and reveal beneath them highly individual men and women.

The Disappearance, her latest novel, brings together Imamu, a boy from the Harlem streets, the Aimsleys, a middle-class Brooklyn family, and their West Indian friends and neighbors. All of these people are black, which in no way diminishes the distance each must travel if he is to understand the other. Nor is there a single definition of womanhood. Imamu's wino mother; the immaculate, socially aware Ann Aimsley; the man-baiting Dora Belle; and Gail, a sheltered college student, spouting undigested liberal slogans -- each is a carefully drawn character whose hidden strengths and weaknesses have the power to heal or to destroy. Imamu has cause to fear each one of them, them and they, him.

This is a story about fear and its tragic consequences. Not just the fear of the powerless black in an unfeeling or cruel white society, but the myriad fears which cause black persons to mistrust and hurt each other. Ann Aimsley, in a seemingly brave and selfless gesture, rescues Imamu from the juvenile court system and determines to make him her foster son. Her husband, who fought his own way up from the streets, is openly antagonistic. Her daughter Gail is torn between physical attraction to the tall arrogant youth and discomfort in his presence. The only member of the family who can accept the newcomer without fear is 8-year-old Perk, and she disappears the day after Imamu joins the family.

Imamu is immediately suspect. Despite or because of the fact that the elder Aimsleys and their West Indian friend Dora Belle turn him over to the police to be interrogated and beaten, Imamu determines to find Perk. And Gail, stunned by her parents' and godmother's betrayal of the boy, joins him in searching for her lost sister.

The book deepens now into a tale of suspense with something of a love story to round it off.

The image Guy uses to bind these disparate elements is a painting, which hangs over the Aimsley's couch and was painted by a former boarder who left it behind for unpaid rent. At first glance, it appears to be simply a picture of a storm at sea. But as Imamu studies it, he realizes that what he took for shadow under the foam is in fact hundreds of tiny matchstick bodies being crushed by the wave.In a scene that leads directly to his solving the mystery of Perk's disappearance, he is looking once more at the painting.

"He could see that for those spinning around like matchsticks in the whirlpool, with not even a toehold in the sand there was a sense of terror and of pleasure on their faces at the same time -- adding up to intense relief at being sucked in, giving into the forces bent on crushing them into that mass.

"Imamu felt the pull, the terror, the pleasure of giving in. Then he knew! He was looking at the results. Nevertheless, his feet ached to take off, his body to be sucked in . . . Yet he had to struggle . . . struggle . . . struggle . . . ."

This is a harsh book, but not a hopeless one. It is a book which cries to its readers to resist being sucked in -- crushing and being crushed -- but it is not a polemic. For Rosa Guy, the writer, is not primarily a black or a woman, but one of that rare and wonderful breed, a storyteller. May her tribe increase.