BOOK REVIEW / A magical maternity with mirrors: 'Mr Mani' - A B Yehoshua, Tr Hillel Halkin: Peter Halban, 15.99 pounds

AT THE TURN of the century, in Dr Mani's magical maternity clinic, women give birth surrounded by mirrors. The doctor has eliminated labour pains but he cannot prevent the death of a baby. Obsessed by his failure, he slaps the stillborn girl on the back 'as if still expecting a cry . . . you might have thought he hoped there was another baby inside her that might yet be born alive'. These mirror images, these 'truths within truths', are emblematic of Yehoshua's story of five generations of Sephardic Jews.

Indeed there are so many metaphors, situations, characters repeating themselves that we have to go back to the Manis of 1918, 1899 and 1848 to understand why in 1982 Mr Mani performs a nightly ritual of attempted suicide, why he is drawn to the Arabic parts of Jerusalem, why a young girl who mourns for her dead father will not let go of him.

The book begins during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, moves backwards through two world wars and the birth of Zionism. Mr Mani appears in each epoch and each conversation. Sometimes an eccentric, sometimes a prophet, always the wandering Jew, he is a man uncomfortable in his time.

The novel's form is as intriguing as its content. The story of the Mani family is told through conversations of which we hear only one side. A German soldier stationed in Crete in 1944 defends his strange friendship with Efrayim Mani, a Jew who had 'cancelled' his Jewishness. A British officer in Palestine in 1918 explains the case of Yosef Mani, who spied for the Turks and urged Arabs to claim their half of Palestine before it was too late.

In the final conversation, Avraham Mani confesses to a rabbi who is paralysed and silenced by a stroke that after discovering that his murdered son's marriage was never consummated, he slept with his daughter-in-law and thus passed on the Mani seed, 'giving and getting love that sweetened a great commandment carried out by a great transgression'.

The one-sided dialogues not only give this complex novel a much needed simplicity of form but they also engage us. We begin to fill in the missing words until each of us becomes the silent partner. For this is more than just a tale of one eccentric family; it has the relentlessness of the Old Testament, the contentiousness of Job. The Manis not only pass down their sense of guilt, the source of their quixotic and often tragic fate, they ask in each generation what it means to be a Jew: are we not all from the same seed, are we not all 'Jews forgetful of being Jews'?

This book seems much longer than it is because each line is significant, each image calls forth a pattern of images, each chapter could be a novel in itself. The writing is almost too cerebral and at times it is difficult to accept that the characters would speak in such metaphorical language, with such extraordinary insight. Yet we are fascinated by these powerful stories and disturbed by the odd and compelling figure of Mr Everyman.