THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES By Lionel Shriver Farrar Straus Giroux. 405 pp. $17.95

Are anthropologists as interesting as the peoples whose kinship patterns they study? Do their conflict-avoidance techniques, power politics and courtship rituals warrant the same scrutiny as those of a lost Masai tribe or a Ghanaian matriarchy? Are they, in short, fit subjects not only for workaday ethnography but for dramatic fiction?

"The Female of the Species," a tautly written first novel, proves that anthropologists may be even more fascinating than the "exotic" peoples whose cultures they record. In fact, this is a book to set beside the life stories of Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead and Mary Leakey.

Author Lionel Shriver (whose masculine given name and strong portrayals of men may lead some to mistake her gender) is a writer with a keen dramatic eye and no need for the self-protective reserve that those telling their own stories often adopt. And in this case -- a novel of integrity as opposed to a smirky roman a` clef -- those are undeniably virtues to celebrate.

Shriver's creation, anthropologist Gray Kaiser, is celebrating her 60th birthday as the novel opens. She stands at the heart of the book -- hence its rather clinical-sounding title. But the reader learns about Gray, her formidable career and her independent personal life through the eyes and the imagination of Errol McEchern. Errol is a friend and colleague, younger than Gray by 12 years, who has loved her since the beginning of their association. Shriver illuminates the unrequited passion of this self-effacing spear carrier -- by his own admission, one of the "rational workhorses of the world" -- as brilliantly as she does Gray's belated go-for-broke love for the charismatic but opportunistic Raphael Sarasola, a graduate student with a suavity and confidence seemingly beyond the scope of his 24 years.

Errol tries to comprehend Gray and Raphael by showing their lives against the home movie screen of his imagination. In fact, the novel takes its shape and much of its emotional impact from the vividness of his projections and the distortions of his biases. His longing admiration of Gray and his jealous mistrust of Raphael are the poles between which Shriver straps the high-tension wire of her story; and, at the end, it is Errol's gentlemanly but subtly transfigured sensibility that allows us to release this wire.

Gray's stature in her field rivals that of Margaret Mead. In 1948, she made her reputation -- as we learn from one of Errol's mental home movies -- studying an isolated tribe of Masai who had fallen under the tyranny of a handsome World War II deserter named Charles Corgie. Corgie presented himself to Il-Ororen, a cutoff "puddle people" living in the jungly bottom of a Kenyan mountain crater, as a god. Gray's sojourn with him exploded the lie of his divinity, pushing him to a spectacular self-immolation that allowed her to escape and to publish her first book.

But Corgie, who could deal brutally with Il-Ororen, even to the point of murder, has left an indelible mark on Gray's psyche. She admires him for his sacrifice and subliminally regrets that his piggishness dissuaded her from taking to his bed. Years later, filming a reconstruction of this episode in Kenya, Gray casts young Raphael Sarasola as Corgie. Sarasola's swashbuckling insolence leads her to transfer her real indebtedness to Corgie (as well as her regrets for failing to sleep with him) to her brooding graduate student, who becomes for her the cross-gender equivalent of a femme fatale. This male siren gives Gray a ferret for a pet, hands-on lessons in pool-shooting and her first taste -- at age 59 -- of sexual surrender.

Shriver manages to project these home movie histories more or less convincingly. Gray's early adventure is the stuff of Tarzan films (if you can imagine an altogether literate Tarzan film), and Raphael's romantically solitary, grit-imparting adolescence seems itself a latter-day Freudian turn on Lord Greystoke's boyhood, but both accounts are so entertaining that most readers will wait to question their likelihood until they've closed this book on its poignant final pages. And a writer who can attain that essential but often elusive goal -- the suspension of our world-weary skepticism -- is a writer indeed.

"The Female of the Species" offers a great deal more than what I have outlined here: An easiness of both language and metaphor that never descends to the facile or inflates to mere fustian; a droll, almost absurdist humor in the Corgie episode; a scene in a new wave nightclub that reveals to the game but intimidated Errol the tribal differences between his generation and that of a band called Hard Cheese on Tony; an interview with a black woman in the South Bronx that conveys in moving terms the reasons that people enslave themselves for love; an almost Hitchcockian level of suspense in an episode that later prompts Gray to declare, "That's half the point, Errol! I admire someone who carries a knife!"; and a feel for the inner lives of her characters -- from Gray's ambivalence to Errol's grim blankness to Errol's sad self-obsession -- all of which identify Shriver as a writer already possessing the insight, and the compassion, to forge a major career.

Shriver's debut is a "literary" novel without an iota of pretentiousness. It reads with the grace of a well-written spy story, but conveys some of its author's early wisdom about what our humanity both demands of and grants us. Given that anthropology is the study of our species, "The Female of the Species" marks a signal contribution -- in the guise of a novel -- to its literature.

The reviewer is the author of the novel "Ancient of Days" and a collection of stories, "Close Encounters With the Deity."