April 03, 1992 at 05:00 AM EST

Like the author (who contributes to this magazine), the clan at the center of Back in the Blue House is named Giles. The Gileses aren’t happy. The parents, Susan and Glen, get divorced twice. Glen remarries. Susan withdraws to record her own brand of invective over the inspirational tapes her therapist has prescribed. Nobody flourishes. Susan, the daughter, lapses into heavy-metal belligerence. Jeff, her brother and our narrator, takes on the role of watchful observer.

Not exactly Ozzie and Harriet, and not exactly a conventional narrative either. We glimpse the Gileses at telling moments through the years, and most of these are comic. Giles dances deftly over the family’s tragedy, rolling its troubles into a series of dazzling set pieces. The strongest voice belongs to the mother, a woman who never walks when she can storm, a woman who turns swearing into arias of truth-telling. Giles captures the fear in her salty candor.

Blue House is — like Susan — about all the ways we distract ourselves and everyone else from our sadness. There’s something of Lorrie Moore (Anagrams, Like Life) here, and something all Giles’ own. He creates a fresh and edgy comic surface but leaves us feeling the emptiness beneath it. B+

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