Francine Hughes poured gasoline around the bed of her sleeping husband, stepped outside and threw a lighted match into the room.

A jury in Lansing, Mich., returned a verdict of not guilty "by reason of insanity." Faith McNulty, who has written about whales and whooping cranes in memorable wildlife books, turns in "The Burning Bed" to the wilder side of life. If it were fiction we wouldn't believe it.

Francine and Mickey Hughes were married 12 years, and almost from the beginning Mickey expressed his love with his fists. He stripped her, shredded her clothes, called her a whore, slapped her and on the night of her final humiliation burned her businessschool textbooks, overturned the supper table, shoved her to her knees to make her clean it up, rubbed the food through her hair, beat her and then ordered her to pick it all up and put it back on the table. And then he did it again.

Mickey's sadism was boundless. He wrung the neck of his little girl's kitten while she watched; he occassionally choked Francine almost to the point of death. He broke chairs, splintered cabinets, pulled telephones out of the walls and once knocked his mother around when she tried to intercede during one of his rages.

The cops knew him well. One saw him try to run Francine down in his car, another heard him threaten to kill her. Mickey Hughes was not nice. Nevertheless, he spent very few nights behind bars. Like many battered wives before her, and for the usual reasons -- summed up best as the triumph of hope over experience -- Francine declined to press charges. The cops managed to restrain their sympathy.

After almost every fight, particularly in the early years of their marriage, Francine and Mickey reconciled in a flurry of hugs, kisses and sentient remorse. She believed him when he promised never to do it again, and four babies later nothing had changed except that her bruises, black eyes and bloddy noses had become evermore-frequent occasions of despair.

Society fails Francine in the way that she fails herself. A psychologist urges her to take assertiveness-training classes. Mickey flies into a rage. "How do you assert yourself with a maniac?" asks Francine. The family doctor tells her to take the children and leave; she declines, afraid that Mickey will find her and kill her. The doctor writes a prescription for a tranquilizer.

Once, when she had the opportunity to have Mickey jailed, Francine rationalizes that he would soon be out on bail and not be tried for weeks. She reasons, not without logic, that at best he would serve a short sentence and come out of jail in a murderous mood. So why bother?

When she finally screws up the courage to sue for divorce, she asks Mickey to stay with the children when she goes to court to receive the final decree. He never leaves. Only months later she complains to her welfare officer; the only help he can offer is to cut off her monthly check on the grounds that she has a man living in her house.

The cops offer similar "help"; like bureaucratic sympathy, theirs hardened long ago for cases like Francine's. "As they see it," writes Faith McNulty, "they risk their lives intervening in a domestic fight only to hve the ungrateful victim return to her abuser . . . a woman who continues to live with a chronic wife-beater -- a man the police regard as a low form of life, slightly above pimps and molesters of children -- inevitably loses dignity and claim to decency in the eyes of the police."

Ay, and there's the rub. Francine Hughes lived in one of the dark-gray corners of life, where the law, which ought to be tempered with humanity, often is not, and where life must be disciplined by the law, often in unpleasant ways.

A certain kind of feminist considers a battered wife and her murdered husband an inevitable reflection of a male-chauvinist society, as if individuals are not responsible in any way for their own lives. Some were disappointed that Francine pleaded insanity rather than self-defense, wanting her to establish a legal precedent for other battered wives. To accept such a plea, a jury must find that Francine was in immediate and eminent fear of her own life; it strains credulity that a sleeping man could put even a frightened, battered, defeated and humiliated woman in such fear.

No doubt Francine Hughes would have found it difficult to get away from Mickey; perhaps to have expected her to do so is to exact a cruel and hard duty. Snuffing a human life is harder and crueler still.

Faith McNulty, fortunately, does not pander to emotional and facile justifications, however tempting, and instead roots Francine and Mickey Hughes where they truly lived, in a shadowy sado-masochistic world where ordinary experience runs amok, where a man's brutality and a woman's repressed rage combine, and explode.