This novel's jacket bills it as a fable, but it isn't that, quite, for like the Hans Christian Andersen story "The Little Mermaid," on which it is loosely based, it has no heavy-handed moral. And it isn't quite a fairy tale, either. It has, rather, the tragic feel of a myth, in which self-consumed, petty gods play hob with human innocence.

The orphaned peasant girl, De'sire'e, has been raised and cared for by old Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian on a Caribbean island called the Jewel of the Antilles. Their life, like that of all the peasants, is harsh: They scratch what living they can from the earth, which is by turns drought-ridden and stripped by the downpours of the rainy season. For Asaka, goddess of the earth, and Agwe, god of the sea, have turned against the natives and cannot be won back.

But De'sire'e is lost in dreams. She has seen the glittering cars of the island's rich as they flash by on the mountain roads, and she longs to know more about their drivers and the magical life she is sure they live. One evening she hears a terrible crash and runs to find that a car has smashed into a tree. Its driver is a boy with bronze skin, not black like her own -- a grand homme. She runs for help and soon the villagers have pulled the boy from the wreckage and laid him on a mat in the only stone house in the village. Here De'sire'e dedicates herself to caring for him, and here, while two of the men search the island cities for his family, he lies barely alive. At last one night, when the Satanic god of death, Papa Ge', comes to claim him, De'sire'e pledges her soul in exchange for the life of this "Creole boy" with whom she has fallen hopelessly in love.

From this moment on the reader knows what must happen. The boy is taken away by his father; De'sire'e follows, and after a long journey finds him in his great house in the city; there she lives with him, at his insistence, until he is completely recovered. She believes he will marry her. But his father can never accept her. In spite of her great beauty, she is black, and she is a peasant. Instead, the boy is married to a girl of his own class to whom he has long been promised, and Papa Ge' claims De'sire'e's soul: She dies by the roadside beyond the mansion's gates.

Andersen's Little Mermaid differs in significant ways from Holt's De'sire'e. The reader may be saddened by the fate of the mermaid, but she is a denizen of the fairy world dying for the love of a human -- her story can end no other way. And her prince never knows that it is she who has saved his life, so he is innocent of responsibility. But De'sire'e is a flesh-and-blood girl barred from the marriage she longs for only by a rigid caste system that is the construction of other flesh-and-blood people. The man she loves is well aware of her role in saving his life, and for a time he treats her like a princess. But he seems never to sense the depth of her love for him, or her expectations. Stricken when she learns of his betrothal, she cries, "Tell me what have I done to give you displeasure?" He replies, "Displeasure? . . . You who found me, cared for me, and gave me back my life? Never! It is this life that brings me joy. It is this life that I have pledged to another woman ." Though his nature is portrayed as gentle and good, he has used De'sire'e and, in the end, deserts her. He is not innocent of responsibility.

Told in another kind of voice, De'sire'e's story would be a simple cry of despair over the blindness of social injustice. But it is more than that because of the richness of its texture. The island, its peasants and their gods are presented in a fulsome vernacular, shot through with French words and phrases, that conjures up wonderfully the beauty and mystery of the tropics. Though daily life is difficult, the peasant villages lie "amid flamboyants, poinsettias . . . eucalyptus, and magnolias" and the sea "spread s out, clear, turquoise, reflecting the sky." The gods are palpable presences, bickering, threatening, entering the bodies of the peasants or materializing dream-like to accuse or cajole. The demon Papa Ge', with his top hat, is a vivid figure of horror: "He grinned around a cigar between brown teeth that were dripping with blood." And the picture of social injustice is balanced by the peasants' resigned acceptance of their place. A wise man of De'sire'e's village tells her, "To be tranquil, one must hang one's hat where one can reach it." Thus she has been warned, but she ignores the warning. So, like the mermaid, her fate is unavoidable.

Largely because of the voice Holt has chosen, "My Love, My Love" will be difficult reading for young people who are accustomed to something more accessible. It may miss a portion of the very audience for which it is intended. But for those who will give it the time and the careful attention it deserves, it will be a story important on many levels, and long remembered.