Heather Neff, . . Broadway/Harlem Moon, $12.95 (384pp) ISBN 978-0-7679-1751-3

A World Court trial of a Liberian man accused of war crimes forces an African-American woman to come to terms with her troubled past in Neff's uneven third novel (after Wisdom and Blackgammon ). Reba Freeman leads a full, busy life as a high-level Washington human rights advocate with a precocious teenage daughter and a loving albeit distant relationship with her well-to-do husband, Carl Thornton. The issue driving a wedge between Freeman and Thornton is the lingering emotional presence of Joseph Thomas, Freeman's first husband, who abruptly left her to return to Africa after a brief courtship and subsequent wedding. Twenty years later Freeman still carries a torch for Thomas, who returns to her life in alarming fashion when she learns that after a brief period as a village schoolteacher, he apparently became a notorious Liberian terrorist who is being tried for murdering more than 30 innocent villagers during his country's civil war. Freeman takes up Joseph's cause when she learns that the accusations may be false, risking her career and marriage to go to Switzerland and help prove his innocence. The contrast between the two story lines is sharp: the current political subplot packs a compelling punch, but Neff dulls the impact with a series of long, ham-fisted flashbacks tracing Freeman's past. A taut climax provides relief, but can't entirely make up for the meandering backstory. Agent, Denise Stinson. (Nov.)