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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : A Foreign Correspondent's Personal War : A YEAR OF FAVOR by Julia MacDonnell ; Morrow, $25, 330 pages


"Woman warrior." That's what Elizabeth Guerrera's last name means in Spanish, and from the moment she arrives in the Central American country of Bellavista to report for a New York newspaper, it's evident that she will have to do her share of fighting--against her editors, U.S. diplomats and advisers; against the country's repressive military, and, most of all, against herself.

Bellavista has an earthquake-ravaged capital like Nicaragua's and a right-wing oligarchy like El Salvador's. It is full of dirty secrets, including the mass murder of civilians. Guerrera's job is to ferret out those secrets, but she has a secret of her own: a masochistic attraction to men such as Bellavista's defense minister, Gen. Victor Rivas Valdez. Serious as "A Year of Favor" is, one can't help thinking of the little devil and the little angel that buzz like flies around the head of a cartoon character faced with a moral choice.

The devil here is Rivas Valdez, touted as a centrist strongman by U.S. officials who seem to have learned nothing from the Vietnam War except how to manipulate the press. Under a veneer of civility, he is a sadist in private as well as a tyrant in public.

"It was a fierce and reckless wanting," Guerrera says of the affair that will ruin her career. "I'd wanted him to touch me--as if, when he did so, he would give me some of his power."

The angel is Mary Healy, an East Coast socialite turned midwife and missionary, who says Bellavista's real problem is "sin . . . evil at work in the world."

Healy argues: "The skirmishes all of you (journalists) write about, your tallies of victories and losses, don't matter. . . . The rise or fall of communism is irrelevant. Because a spiritual process has been set into motion. The poor have begun taking part in . . . their own liberation."

Subordinate angels are Sonia Alvinas, the street-tough Bellavistan photographer who sneeringly calls Guerrera "Miss America," and Alan Hartwell, her predecessor, who ruined his career by jettisoning objectivity in his search for the truth.

"How can you tell both sides when one side, the most powerful side, is lying--and the other side is inaccessible?" Hartwell asks. "Besides, when you know they're lying, isn't it irresponsible, and immoral, to repeat their lies?"

Torn and wavering, Guerrera spends most of "A Year of Favor"--the title refers to one of Healy's mystical concepts--in such extremes of lust, fear, bewilderment, exhaustion and awe that the crisp little news stories at the end of each chapter seem to have been written by somebody else.

Julia MacDonnell, a former reporter, does several things well in her first novel. She writes vividly of the craft of journalism and her not-so-imaginary Central America. She has a powerful vision of women as a life-giving force that counteracts murderous machismo. Births figure prominently; the novel's best scene is of Healy performing a Caesarean section by candlelight on a 15-year-old girl in a refugee camp.

MacDonnell takes a big risk, though, by giving Guerrera such a major weakness. Try as she does to explain it by references to Guerrera's absent father; her clinging mother; her gloomy Catholic upbringing; her sense of herself as a blond, green-eyed "fake ethnic"; her insecurity in a male-dominated profession; her inability to bear children, it still seems far-fetched that she would fall so abjectly for Rivas Valdez, who--although tall, dark, handsome and magnetic--is obviously a creep.

Their love scenes seem borrowed from another kind of novel, as if chapters from "The Story of O" were scattered through Joan Didion's "Book of Common Prayer." The political and social story--even the feminist story of women's empowerment--is obscured rather than heightened, because Guerrera is such a special case.

MacDonnell surely tells some of the truth about U.S. misdeeds in Central America in the 1980s. And since journalism didn't seem to blow the whistle loud enough--it gave us plenty of facts but not enough context--she recasts that truth in fiction, at the cost of inventing some facts and simplifying others, as fiction must do. At her best, it's a moving story that makes us wish we had read the newspaper more carefully.

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