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Return of the hopeful - not happy - ending. Three novels about women

Mama Day, by Gloria Naylor. New York: Ticknor & Fields. 311 pp. $18.95. The Dark Path to the River, by Joanne Leedom-Ackerman. Dallas, San Francisco, New York: Saybrook. 390 pp. $19.95.

White Lies, by Julie Salamon. Boston: Hill & Co. 259 pp. $16.95.

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IN an acclaimed, recent novel the leading writer-character dripped this acerbic praise on a coming book: ``[It's] sure to be a success. Hopeless endings are very popular right now.''

It's a clever, slyly exaggerated comment on the state of much of today's fiction. And, one might add, a judgment that's constantly subject to change. Three new novels, in fact, offer tangibly hopeful, if not entirely happy, endings.

Gloria Naylor made her publishing debut six years ago with ``The Women of Brewster Place.'' Her courageous portrait of seven black women living on a dead-end urban street was recognized for its emotional daring with the American Book Award for First Fiction. In her latest novel, Naylor creates another unforgettable, isolated world.

Her Willow Springs, connected to the mainland by a rickety wooden bridge that has to be rebuilt after every big storm, draws its atmosphere and setting from the Sea Islands off the Carolina and Georgia coasts. Her characters are modeled on the black ``Christian mystics'' who have lived on these islands for generations and still follow the practices of their African forebears, and Naylor encourages her readers to ``suspend belief'' when they encounter the supernatural in her fictional community.

Miranda Day, the ``Mama Day'' of the title, is a modern-day ``conjure woman,'' an elderly midwife who dispenses medicinal herbs along with hefty dollops of common sense, island wisdom, and irreverent humor. When her sassy grand-niece, Cocoa, arrives in Willow Springs for her annual vacation, bringing a new ``mainside'' husband, George, supernatural forces are set in motion for a climax that has its share of lightning bolts and hexes - and that validates the power of love and believing in something greater than oneself.

There is much to savor in this stylistically rich novel, starting with observed details like the fragrance of mint sprigs and the snap of June peas. Naylor's prose often sways in the poetic breezes and we are witness, through Mama Day's eyes, to some mighty powerful sunsets: ``... when them streaks of color hit the hush-a-by green of the marsh grass with the blue of The Sound behind 'em, you ain't never had to set foot in a church to know you looking at a living prayer.''

Beyond the indelible imagery she creates, the author bares her characters' souls without bombarding the readers' sensitivities. Cocoa and George narrate alternate chapters as they face up to their individual fears and losses, and each has a distinct and believable voice. We relive George's early years as an abandoned child in a Harlem shelter, and we make the odyssey with Cocoa from hip city single to caring wife and mother. At novel's end, after George's tragic death on the island and her subsequent remarriage, Cocoa comes to realize that ``being so young, I didn't understand that every hour we keep living is building material for a new world, of some sort.'' It's a memorable postscript for the challenging life lessons we all have to learn.

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Two writers with journalistic credits making their debuts as novelists this season have much to offer. Judging from the biographical dust-jacket notes, there's a good bit of each writer in each book.

Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, a former reporter for The Christian Science Monitor, tells a complex tale in ``The Dark Path to the River.'' Three women journalists who once worked for the same Boston paper are thrown together again by a Page 1 story of revolution in a developing African nation. The background is New York City, and undercurrents run the gamut of political maneuvering and financial manipulation. The cast includes some predictable pairings - a wise elder statesman and quixotic young revolutionary, a naive entrepreneur and conniving financier - and a few too many coincidences are used to carry the plot line.

The three young women who take center stage, however, are true to their craft and eventually learn to speak from the heart. There's Jenny, on hold while she raises a family and alternately works on a children's book and a ``grown-up'' manuscript about African women. There's Olivia, a black reporter on the professional rebound as she tries to balance her native skepticism with a growing desire to make some personal commitments. And there's Kay, a blond hustler on the make for any man who can help her in her career.

Olivia is the most original and the most convincing character. While Jenny's biggest worry appears to be her husband's fidelity, Olivia is torn between her attraction for the charismatic revolutionary and the promise he holds for his nation and her belief in nonviolence, no matter what the circumstances. Olivia also has a smart mouth, which helps to enliven a novel that sometimes borders on the too-purposeful.

As these women begin to rise above their own estimates of their abilities, they also begin to take some tentative steps toward finding a deeper, more resilient sense of self-worth. Kay reestablishes her ties with her teen-age son, Olivia throws herself into her best story ever, and Jenny finds comfort in her realization that she has ``a loving heart,'' one that she can extend to others.

Jamaica Just, the wacko heroine of ``White Lies,'' is also on a quest for peace of mind. She's the daughter of Holocaust survivors, raised in the American Bible Belt by parents who wanted to forget, rather than remember, their years in Hitler's concentration camps. As a reporter for a New York daily where ``her beat was a breeze,'' Jamaica cranks out bright feature stories by day and struggles with a concept of herself as shallow and unworthy by night. She's convinced she never would have made it through the horrors of her parents' experience.

Julie Salamon's humor sometimes slices to the bone: ``Did their mothers talk cheerily about girlhood chums they went to camp with and mean Auschwitz?'' Jamaica wonders about her friends.

But for all her dark asides, Jamaica is an innocent doing what she can to redeem herself and to save her corner of the world. And it's to Salamon's credit that she is able to suspend the happy talk - almost in mid-sentence at times - for deeply felt glimpses of a soul in turmoil, and then quickly recover her brisk and winning narrative pace.

Jamaica gradually resolves her doubts about herself and decides she doesn't need to take on the burden of being ``an out-of-context American Jew.'' On the final page, when she shouts, ``Don't play on my guilt'' to a Washington Square doomsayer, it's a hard-won, triumphant chorus.

Diane Manuel is a free-lance book reviewer.

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