WATER MARKED

By Helen Elaine Lee

Scribner. 319 pp. $24

"Water Marked" is like the family of fleshed-out characters it depicts--flawed yet deeply engaging. Second-time novelist Helen Elaine Lee lyrically tells the story of Delta and Sunday Owens, sisters whose strained relationship is tested when they receive a note from a dead man: "I remembered and I paid."

These are the five words that Mercury Owens bequeaths to his daughters. Decades earlier, when Delta was a little girl and Sunday wasn't yet born, Mercury disappeared from their small town--leaving his wedding band tied to the strings of his run-down dark brown shoes. Like their mother, Dolora, the Owens girls always believed that a distraught Mercury had dived into the river, just beyond the banks where his shoes were found. His body was never recovered, but after a long mourning period--a time of baseless hope that he might return--Dolora finally ordered a gravestone, acknowledging that she'd lost her husband to the river.

With Dolora long dead, Delta and Sunday now face the truth of their father's gaping absence from their lives: He did not commit suicide, he simply abandoned his family and went on to live another life.

By the time they get his note, however, Mercury has left again--dying an old man, free of the obligations of fatherhood. His daughters begin an emotionally arduous journey to discover who their father was, and who he had become. It is a journey of self-discovery as well--of excavating family secrets and of mending fractured hearts.

For Mercury Owens, his daughters learn, Salt County, Ill., was a tomb, and his family was its sealing door. "It seemed that all the things that were closed off to him lined up in the presence of his wife and daughter, their very existence announcing what was finished for him. . . . He would never see past the paper mill that emptied into the ocher river, and his whole world would be that tight fist of a town, that house, those people and their narrow paths to the corner store and to their unremitting jobs. Their common little church with stained-glass windows no bigger than themselves."

Though she never met him, Sunday inherited her father's wanderlust, which spurred her, decades earlier, to leave town for art school in Chicago. Mercury's note, however, draws Sunday home to face Delta, whose job at the post office is her only real tie with the world beyond Salt County. Like her younger sister, Delta is an intelligent, attractive, sexually independent woman. Yet she's chosen to be all these things in the town of her birth. Sunday, a painter, is the one who got away--and the gulf between the sisters has grown wide since Sunday's last visit, five years earlier. Yet, to know who their father was, Delta and Sunday ultimately realize, they must first become sisters again.

Lee's first novel, "The Serpent's Gift," was praised by The Washington Post as "staggeringly accomplished." This novel, too, is a powerful testament to her talents as a storyteller and crafter of words.

Yet it suffers from several flaws. Lee has a tendency, for example, to tell (albeit beautifully), rather than show. And her use of unanchored--and unnecessary--quotation marks is maddening, as in this sentence: "Delta, on the other hand, kept returning to the solution of 'letting things be.' "

Though Sunday and Delta are finely drawn characters, with their own distinct ways of speaking and thinking, the supporting characters sometimes annoyingly take on the author's own eloquence. It seems unlikely, for instance, that an uneducated old lady in Salt County, who has just expressed irritation at a friend's tendency to use grandiloquent language, would say these words: "they couldn't seem to extract that tiny bit of providence, without meeting the problem, whole." Not that this particular character should speak in dialect or be inarticulate, but the words that Lee has put in her mouth seem like the author's own metaphor-driven language rather than the words such a character would choose.

Still, the novel's flaws are relatively small--like the flaws that Delta and Sunday see in each other, like the flaws we have all noted in our own sisters, brothers, parents, children or lovers, those annoying little imperfections that we would fix--if only they were ours to repair. Despite its imperfections, "Water Marked" is a novel of great ambition and achievement. It is also a refreshing departure from the glut of black women's novels that seem to have the same cover art and the same flat, forgettable characters.

It's wonderful to read a literary novel about contemporary black women who don't call each other "girlfriend" and who have much more on their minds than men.

To be sure, men have their place: Mercury, "ever-present in his absence," is central. Yet "Water Marked" is more than a story about women searching for a man, even when that man is their father. This is a novel about the power and pain of memory, about the stumbling, staccato rhythms of family, about finding a way to go home again.