THE REASON FOR WINGS

By Joyce Reiser Kornblatt

Syracuse University and Dryad. 233 pp.

$24.95

By Beryl Lieff Benderly, who is at work on a book about Jewish women.

At the end of this most dreadful of centuries, Joyce Reiser Kornblatt presents a novel to carry into the next, an account of four generations of Jewish women--and the promise of a fifth--amid both our era's unspeakable man-made disasters and the ancestral visions and dreams that presage and echo them.

Dreams, in fact, play a rather larger role in these women's destinies than rational choice does, as befits an era of inconceivable tragedy. The story even begins with what might be a waking dream. One day in the very early 1900s, Dov Landau, a Jewish cobbler, goes off in his rowboat to spend some hours at his favorite recreation, observing and drawing the water birds that thrive in the delta of the Danube River near his home. When he fails to return to his wife, Reba, and 5-year-old daughter, Sonia, a fruitless search convinces the authorities that he has drowned. But a local Gypsy tells Reba that Dov is alive--sound and healthy but convinced that he has become a pelican. The man offers to take Reba to the nest that Dov has built for himself on a riverbank.

This search, too, proves fruitless. The man finds Dov's boat, with its decorations of painted wings, and rows it into cove after cove, but Dov is nowhere to be found. Reba believes him lost forever. But Sonia comes away with a different conclusion--one that she will keep secret for 80 years. As the sun burnishes the delta's water and sky to a radiance whose like she will never again witness, Sonia spies a pelican arcing high over the boat and then disappearing into the light. In that instant, her father's voice tells her he loves her and charges her to care for her mother.

This fantastic episode echoes down the generations of Reba and Dov's descendants. Images of wings, water and light resound repeatedly through Kornblatt's beautiful and poetic account of the family's repeated flights from historic horrors. Soon after Dov's departure, Reba and little Sonia escape a murderous pogrom.

The adult Sonia, at once a new widow and a new mother, must flee from one of World War I's minor battles, which destroys her town. A generation after that, she and Rachael, the grown daughter Sonia barely rescued in infancy, manage to elude the Nazis. When peace comes, Rachael and her husband, Jacob, accompanied by the aging Sonia, sail on the steamship Pelican to Buenos Aires, where their own daughter, Miriam, is born. Decades later, during Argentina's "Dirty War," Miriam, now a young lawyer, marries Carlos, a crusading journalist. The day she learns she is pregnant, Carlos is "disappeared." Just before the baby is due, Miriam is grabbed, too. Long afterward, as a Mother of the Plaza de Mayo, Rachael learns that Miriam gave birth just before her own murder, the child disappearing, apparently into a fraudulent adoption.

On the deathbed that these events have hastened, Sonia recounts to Rachael that long-ago day in the Danube Delta and asks her to write the story down. Once started, Rachael is driven to record all the family stories she knows, imagines, dreams or remembers. She soon finds herself composing not the recollections of her dead mother but a testament for Marcella--the unknown granddaughter to whom Miriam, had she lived, would have given that name. We gradually realize that we have been reading this very document all along.

The heartbreaking circumstances of Rachael's project and her valor in addressing the unknown future also become clear, as the story moves from events Rachael knows as family fables to those she lives as bitter anguish. Just as gradually, the reader begins to read "The Reason for Wings" on several levels at once: the grief of a woman weeping, like the biblical Rachel, for her lost child; the saga of a particular family; an allegory of all of European Jewry and its astonishing spiritual resilience.

On one level, we never doubt that the grown-up Marcella will someday read Rachael's words. But on another, we know that the story teems with details and portents that Kornblatt must intend us to understand symbolically. Packing into so short a book such a world of magic, sorrow, symbolism and history, as well as so complicated a plot and so subtle a narrative device, is a virtuoso performance. Keeping the whole thing from toppling over into absurdity, bathos, irony or pretension elevates the work beyond mastery to art.

In the beginning, Reba asks Dov about the wings he painted on his boat. He answers with a legend that pelicans build their nests on the ground because long ago they forgot how to fly. "One by one they are recalling the reason for wings," he says. When the last one does, "I want to be ready to follow them into the heavens." In this painful, lyrical, haunting work, Joyce Reiser Kornblatt shows that she already knows how to fly.