By Ernesto Mestre-Reed

Vintage. 259 pp. Paperback, $13

As Saint Augustine pointed out in The Confessions, humans spend their lives constantly poised between the past and the future, riding the evanescent wave of the present, the crest of which is at once utterly real and unreal, for there is never any point that can be really claimed as "now" -- for as soon as one utters the word, the moment has passed. Since the present is as elusive as a flowing river, memory is at the core of our being, and remembering is our identity.

Ernesto Mestre-Reed's new novel is a marvelously poetic meditation on time and memory, and on the ways in which past, present and future relate to one another in any person's life. In this case, the novel's main character happens to be a Cuban exile. Though, as her name announces, she represents the uniqueness of the individual -- as well as the singularity of Cuban culture -- Unica Aveyano is also a universal figure, an embodiment of the joys and sorrows of the human race as a whole and especially of the ways in which we are affected by our past. Weaving in and out of the ephemeral "now," Mestre-Reed tells the tale of Unica and her immediate family across three generations, beginning in pre-revolutionary Guantanamo and ending in present-day South Florida and New York.

Mestre-Reed builds plot and characters as one would assemble a puzzle. Piece by piece, through glimpses that are at once furtive and revealing, the reader discerns a larger picture. Unica is never alone: She is always seen in relation to those around her, and especially to her family. Similarly, no event in her life stands alone. By stringing events from different periods next to each other in the narrative -- even though they might be separated by decades -- the author manages to portray Unica's life as a seamless whole. Paradoxically, this constant shuffling makes the connections between the characters across time seem all the more poignant and substantial.

Because Unica is an exile, separation and loss figure prominently in her story, and Mestre-Reed does a superb job of representing the Cuban revolution as a tragedy on the personal level. When Unica decides to leave Cuba, it is not due to ideological abstractions or even such economic reasons as having to put up with rationing, but rather because Fidel Castro's political repression has simply made life intolerable. By the time he has been in power for three years, Fidel is being spoken of by Unica's husband -- who knew him as a hotheaded revolutionary at the university -- "with the derision one might reserve for an ex-wife who had run away with another man." When the family is split apart, it is not just because of the revolution, but also because of the domestic battle between love and alienation. Unica's son Candido, an eccentric and shiftless artist, abandons his wife and child before any decision is made to leave Cuba. He remains behind, a deluded man roaming the streets of Havana "as if he were strolling through the great boulevards of Europe," only to later regret his choice. Mestre-Reed thus portrays the revolution as Cubans actually experienced it: something that affects every decision, making the ordinary fabric of life and all of its traumas more complex.

The specter of Elian Gonzalez looms large in this novel -- bobbing on the waves, seized by federal marshals, driven back to Cuba by political forces. Elian is a symbol in a very Catholic way for Unica: In a transubstantiation of sorts, he is the embodiment of Cuba and of every child, his fate representing all in life that should not happen, all that is unjust and senseless.

Mestre-Reed displays uncommon virtuosity as a writer, and much of this book reads like poetry. Here, for example, he makes something as prosaic as the dubbing of foreign films into a metaphysical and epistemological meditation:

"On Friday nights, he took her to el teatro on Calixto Garcia to watch American movies. The badly dubbed voices always reminded Unica, as she watched the oblivious yanqui actors, moving their lips and saying nothing or screaming with their mouths shut, of the possessed man in the Gospel of Luke. And when she watched these movies again, so many years later, to learn to speak English so she could talk to her own grandson, the actors having regained their voices (their very selves, it seemed), it was as if in the intervening years, the Lord had touched them and cast out all their demons."

Several images in this novel stand out: There is Unica stumbling naked and bruised into the surf on Miami Beach, rescued from drowning by the spirits of would-be refugees who had been swallowed by the sea. There is the wisteria vine from Candido's subterranean bunker, which completely envelops a Soviet-built apartment building and brings it crashing down. There is Unica trying to kill herself by eating -- gingerly and with the utmost composure -- the Christmas ornaments she brought from Cuba. This suicidal holiday repast is Unica's first "death," from which she recovers. Her second, like the deaths of Cubans drowned at sea in their search for a better life, is also partly chosen.

Unica is a creature blessed with free will in a world that ultimately offers little room for choice, or for pure happiness, even in the most blessedly free country. Ernesto Mestre-Reed has managed to write a work of fiction that, like all great art, both captures and transcends the life of its subject, and that has the capacity to transform for the better the lives of all who come in contact with it. *

Carlos M.N. Eire is the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University and winner of the 2003 National Book Award in nonfiction for his memoir, "Waiting for Snow in Havana."