WINDWARD HEIGHTS

By Maryse Conde

Translated from the French by Richard Philcox

Soho. 348 pp. $24

In "Windward Heights," Maryse Conde has met one of the most daunting challenges any novelist can assume. She has recast one of the giants of the canon, Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights," setting this most English of fictions in her own native French Caribbean at the turn of the 20th century.

It is an achievement in itself to construct a distinctive fictional architecture on the framework of a classic, but Conde isn't doing it just to show off. Instead, she has manipulated the original to her own, quite different, ends. Bronte remained tied to the heaths and moors and to the intimate dramas played out there; "Windward Heights" is driven by externals--the forces of racism, class struggle and colonialism--that form a twisted backdrop before which the borrowed narrative assumes a sweeping dimension, almost as if Conde has given Bronte a cultural context. Not that the copy is an improvement on its model, just that the wider scope brings a different magnitude to the plot, allowing it to stand alone, so that readers are gradually weaned away from comparisons and see "Windward Heights" as singular.

After a mysterious scene set in Cuba that introduces the brooding central figure of Razye, the narrative--which will be told from a number of perspectives--follows him down a sinister path. Discovered as a foundling on a heath (razye in Creole) in Guadeloupe by a mulatto widower, he was raised with the widower's own children, Justin and Cathy.

While growing up with Cathy, Razye fell in love with her, a love that turned to obsession once she rejected him for the wealthy (and white) Creole planter Aymeric de Linsseuil. When we first meet him, he has come to reclaim his due and to exact a revenge of the most sweeping sort.

Up until this point the Bronte plot is largely intact, transposed into a different time and place yet still recognizable. But from here on, although many salient elements are carried over, "Windward Heights" takes on a distinctive overtone, set apart from its predecessor by the related issues of race and sex. While Bronte described Heathcliff as "a dark-skinned gypsy," implying that coloring was but one of the qualities that placed him many steps below the Earnshaws on the social ladder, for Conde color is central.

At the time of the story, slavery is still a recent memory in Guadeloupe, and freedom means only hardship for those who have escaped it. Inhabitants of the island are of "all the colours of the rainbow, from Congo black to pass-for-white," but there is no question of which group holds the power--economic, social and political. All the blacks are left with is an undercurrent of imagined sexual prowess, which terrifies white men and gives white women an "inexplicable, mysterious attraction" to the mythical "iron spike" of a virile black man. The Creole planters can only allay their fears of sexual inadequacy by giving out punishing doses of racism and oppression.

In this atmosphere, Cathy, the beautiful mulatto, "the colour of hot syrup left to cool in the open air," rejects the "too black" Rayze in favor of a wealthy Creole of such pinkness that he is known as the "heavenly Cherub." The two even marry, despite "a golden rule that knows no exception . . . the white male will never marry a mulatto girl."

Making Cathy his wife sets Aymeric de Linsseuil--educated in France to believe in racial harmony and equality--against both family and kind. This he can deal with, but his intellectual liberalism is no match for the enraged and passionate Razye. The seething black man, who has come back to Guadeloupe as a political organizer, is determined to destroy both Aymeric and the entire planter class and to punish Cathy for betraying his hunger for her. He accomplishes the former by instigating strikes and burning plantations, the latter by impregnating his true beloved--before marrying her sister.

Although much of the racial fury carries forward to the next generation, and in fact turns even more ominous, in the end Conde seems to offer hope. Implying that, in the long run, the power of good is stronger than the power of evil, she suggests that once the externals are stripped from the human condition, an essential beauty remains and that eventually the curse that has dominated the narrative will be lifted. Emily Bronte implied much the same thing.

This supple and powerful novel is the kind of work we have come to expect from this writer ("Tree of Life," "I, Tituba," "Crossing the Mangrove"), as is the solid translation by her husband, Richard Philcox. Despite the obvious allusion to Jean Rhys's "Wide Sargasso Sea," which took for its inspiration Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre," Conde's latest is a fine and unique accomplishment.

James Polk, who writes frequently about Caribbean literature and teaches at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.