FRUIT OF THE LEMON By Andrea Levy

Picador. 339 pp. $15

"Fruit of the Lemon" is the third novel by Andrea Levy, the talented British author who came to the attention of U.S. publishers after her fourth novel, "Small Island," won both the Whitbread and Orange prizes. Her charming "Fruit of the Lemon" takes its title from the song "Lemon Tree," which laments that the beautiful tree produces a fruit "impossible to eat." This becomes a metaphor for the black Londoner who seems to have everything -- education, employment, social mobility -- but suffers from a bitterness just beneath the brilliant surface.

Faith Jackson, Levy's 20-something protagonist, is a Londoner who happens to be black. Aside from a memory or two of schoolyard taunting, she has never considered herself any different from her friends, all of whom happen to be white. This changes when her Jamaican-born parents announce that they are moving back "home." Faith, who has never visited Jamaica and knows nothing of her parents' history, is flummoxed by this decision.

"The question I wanted answering was, why Jamaica? Why is Jamaica home?" Faith thinks. "I knew my parents had come from there. . . . But what Mum and Dad really loved was snow and cold evenings after shopping. . . . My mum's mantra had always been, 'You couldn't get this in Jamaica.' "

The relationship between her parents' announcement and the events that follow is never exactly clear in the novel, but Faith's life shifts dramatically: Either the spate of good luck that has allowed her to avoid racism ends, or her observational and analytical powers suddenly kick in. Over the course of the next few weeks, she endures an uncomfortable moment at a comedy club, learns of discrimination at her place of employment and witnesses the aftermath of a violent hate crime. Her abrupt reckoning with English racism leaves Faith confined to her bed. To heal herself, at the urging of her parents, she takes a holiday to Jamaica.

The portion of the novel set in Jamaica is, in equal measures, engaging and frustrating. Levy unfolds Faith's family history in a series of testimonies with titles such as "Coral's Story told to me by Coral" and "Cecelia's Story told to me by Vincent." These oral histories tell of a time when colonialism and slavery devastated the entire society, particular communities, family bonds and individual sanity. Always powerful, these stories are infused with a sense of humor that provides the novel with a certain buoyancy without undercutting its gravity. Take the story of blue-eyed cousin Constance, who returns from England forever changed:

"Constance called England Babylon -- a place of sin where the evil white man lived -- and swore she would never return. . . . Constance stopped combing her hair, sat in the sun, wiped her skin with cocoa butter. And told everyone she was letting her black inside out." Such vivid descriptions draw us in, but Levy is soon on to the next history, full of colorful characters, sparkling dialogue and engaging predicaments. One feels like a gate-crasher at a neighbor's family reunion: The stories and characters are insightful and bubbling with emotion, but we don't know them well enough to fully connect.

"Fruit of the Lemon," essentially a heartwarming novel of self-discovery, is peppered with incidents of real bravery and unguardedness. Take this moment when Faith must confront her own internalized racism upon meeting a relative:

"Gloria's nose was flat and broad and her hair, which was straightened, was round and curly on her head. She had very dark skin. . . . She reminded me of the Black and White Minstrels. Those white people made up to look black -- caricatured with thick dark make-up and woolly hair -- that I used to watch on Saturday night television, singing and dancing and entertaining the British. I was ashamed of the thought and lowered my eyes away from her."

If only there were more such frank and unflinching examinations. Faith is a bright, witty and likable heroine, and we are glad for her as she learns where she comes from. And though the lessons she learns are all good ones, one cannot help but wish that "Fruit of the Lemon" lingered more on the tang of Faith's internal struggles before serving up the lemonade of its conclusion.