Amid a large body of South American fiction, both heavyweight and sprightly, published in the United States in the past two decades, "The Water House" by Antonio Olinto was overlooked. First published in Portuguese in Brazil in 1970, it subsequently appeared in England and elsewhere, but the current edition, in a good translation by Dorothy Heapy, is its first American appearance. It was worth the wait.

Olinto, a Brazilian diplomat and author of 21 books, had spent some while as his country's cultural attache' in Lagos, making a study of Brazilians living in Nigeria. That rich body of experience and material forms the basis for his novel.

"The Water House," in its broadest structure, is a family chronicle spanning the years 1898 to 1968. It begins in the backwoods of Bahia, in Brazil, in the year that African slaves were emancipated in that country. Now free, aging Catarina decides to return with her family to Africa, to Lagos, the place of her birth. The focus is on her granddaughter, Mariana, who is just approaching womanhood as the group sails in a small boat with other African families. After a six-month voyage, half of which is spent becalmed in mid-Atlantic, they reach Lagos and begin structuring a new life for themselves. Symbolically -- the symbolism is never obtrusive in this very symbolic novel -- Mariana comes ashore naked and reaches womanhood at the same instant she first sets foot on African soil.

From that point, "The Water House" is a fully detailed account of Mariana's growing maturity and her calm determination to provide for her ever-growing family in a setting that both is and is not her own, and in a world that grows increasingly challenging as she ages. The story itself is simple. The real richness of the book lies in its vivid portrait of a remarkable woman who leads a wonderfully rich life.

The question of language typifies Mariana's changing world and her response to it. She arrives speaking only Portuguese, but now she must learn Yoruba. She sets up a business, selling water from a well, and so must learn English to deal with the authorities. When her business expands to Dahomey, she must learn French and German too. She is a strong woman who conducts her life by doing the things that must be done, and through the course of the book, one's admiration for her grows steadily.

As a family chronicle, "The Water House" is like other such novels, a growing tapestry of births, deaths, weddings, worries. In the earlier parts of the novel, the great events of world history are very distant from Lagos; later, another world war will have local repercussions. But the novel's focus is on the details of daily life and Mariana's responses to the world around her. It is only in middle life that she is truly aware of a larger world -- that Lagos is part of a larger place called Nigeria, for example -- but, once aware, she embraces it. She sends the children of the family to schools in London and Paris and sees them return as a teacher, a lawyer and a doctor . . . and it is the daughter who returns as a doctor. Yet in times of crisis, wise and cautious Mariana still prays to both the Holy Ghost and the Yoruba god Shango.

Olinto shapes his narrative in the style of Yoruba oral storytelling techniques, and there are similarities to the work of Nigerian novelist Amos Tutuola. In Olinto's hands, it has the look of the one right way to tell this story. "Mariana," he writes, "I see her tranquil during those days of harmattan, the wind blew over the town, she felt the need of silence, the dry air touched her body and filled her with a sense of well-being. I see her walking along Bangboshe . . ." She reflects often that "the cloth of life was woven with strange threads," and later, as she nears her sixties, "she saw that the past was unwinding in her hands, escaping, and all she had to do was let it go and she would be free, able to go on capturing each moment as it unfolded . . ."

Among the novel's special pleasures are Olinto's handling of the passage of time. We meet Mariana as a young girl and watch 70 years of her life, yet we know -- in exactly the same way she does -- that she is still the same person she was, that events of 40 years ago seem like only yesterday.

"The Water House" is a remarkable novel that will have a special appeal for anyone interested in Latin American writing or in Africa, but its great strength is in bringing a fascinating woman, and with her a whole way of life, into vibrant reality.