By Jenifer Levin

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 378 pp. $18.95

"Shimoni's Lover" is a tale of many characters, rich in incident, alive with the tensions Israelis breathe each day. It is at once a political allegory and a troubling story of men and violence and the disastrous effect of that violence on women and children. It is also a love story, a modern love story of how a man and a woman learn to trust and to love without possessing.

The novel begins in the Kibbutz Mayan Ha-Emek, where the wife of a mysterious general lives. Her name is Yael and she is the mother of four sons. The oldest and bravest of them, Shimoni, has just been killed in the Lebanon war. The second brother, Nadav, the hero of this book, has had his hand deformed in the same war. He looks for Shimoni's lover, Miriam Sagrossa, and when he finds her he enters the emotional force field that surrounds her hostile beauty. In addition, he must confront his brother's friend Lucero, who has turned into an enemy of the state in a demonic embrace of violence.

The third brother, Rafi, is a homosexual who wants to go to America and be a photographer. He is of no use to Israel in its wars. The fourth brother, Michael, enters officer school after the war. He is capable of spontaneous brutality toward Arabs. He wants vengeance for his brother.

Then there is the American girl in the kibbutz searching for love and meaning, in the way of American girls who cannot find their place at home. There is Yael's lover, who has yearned for her in lonely patience over the years. There is the general himself, who appears and disappears somewhat like the prophet Elijah. There is Avi, a computer genius despised by his age-mates in the kibbutz because of his girth but able in manhood to find acceptance.

To be sure, there is a measure of melodrama in all this; and true, the language of the book sometimes boils over into heavy panting. Nevertheless, the characters cause you to worry for them, to hope ridiculously for good things, to sigh when they make wrong turns. This is a wonderful book to sink into.

Jenifer Levin describes the Israeli landscape with perfect detail and precision. She is not a contemporary novelist who tells as little as possible but one who fills her story with sight and smell and touch. In particular, she has a vision of the way men and women love each other after the wars are over that is very powerful and convincing. It is a feminist vision that brings men into the circle of women and children, and binds them with concern. She is one of those writers one wishes were in charge of the real world.

The reviewer, a New York novelist, is the author of "Lovingkindness."