A family is a fragile entity. Even ones with the strongest of bonds can come unglued when tragedy strikes, as John Searles ably demonstrates in his poignant second novel, Strange But True.

It has been five years since 16-year-old Ronnie Chase died in a prom night car crash. His mother is now an acrimonious, slovenly binge-eater whose bitterness drove her husband to a new wife. Ronnie's purposeless brother, Philip, has relocated from their small Pennsylvania town to New York's East Village, where he cruises for men via the Internet to relieve an otherwise lonely existence.

But then a mysterious, near tragic incident of his own brings Philip back to his gloomy childhood home to convalesce. There, he answers a phone call from Melissa, Ronnie's high school girlfriend. Disfigured in the accident that took Ronnie's life, Melissa has deteriorated from a bright, beautiful girl into a dull, marginally unbalanced young woman she keeps her bloody prom dress hanging in her bathroom. What she tells Philip and his mother is as shocking as it is unlikely: she is pregnant, and the long-dead Ronnie is the father. Part thriller and part family drama, the novel unfolds along the dual paths of solving the mystery of the pregnancy and dissecting just how the Chases sunk to their current lows. As Philip and his mother exchange barbs in a vitriolic one-upmanship worthy of Eugene O'Neill's family in a Long Day's Journey into Night, we're led on a serpentine path to find out the origins of birth, so to speak.

Searles' portrayal of a family in collective emotional agony is spellbinding. He manages to insinuate his way into their minds and push from the inside causing their fears and loneliness to float to the surface.

Ian Schwartz writes from New York City.

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