"Dream House" is a first novel of elegant, poised assurance. It is a penetrating portrayal of people unraveling and a suspenseful story of four characters on a fiery collision course. At the center of the plot is an enigmatic house.

Kate and Stuart are living in a dingy apartment in Ann Arbor where they met nine years earlier as undergraduates at the University of Michigan. Kate had been an anxious striver, planning to become an architect. Stuart converted her to booze, pot and slackerdom.

He has become a low-level computer techie; Kate teaches high school math. Her wealthy developer father gives her money to buy a house. Maybe out of spite, but also resuscitating her architectural ambition, Kate chooses an ugly duckling, a house rotted through and through. As she spins her remodeling plans, Stuart reluctantly acquiesces. In the face of her father's objections, Kate thinks, "I want to stare hard at something flawed and love it anyway," perhaps because she cannot bear to examine her fraying marriage. She and Stuart circle politely around each other with a growing space like a blank stare between them.

In her summer off from teaching, she launches into a furious take-down crusade, resolving to do every bit of the demolition and rebuilding herself. Stuart retreats to beers in front of the TV set. The atmosphere between them becomes even more strained when a neighbor tells them that their house was the scene of a murder 18 years earlier. Kate buries her shock in ever more frenetic work. Stuart, coming home to a construction site after being fired, snaps and runs away without talking to her or calling. She is alarmed and shaken, but as the silent weeks pile up, she discovers "a shocked liberation, as if while she was sleeping someone had sneaked in and pulled from her mouth an aching molar that had been plaguing her for years."

The novel shifts among three points of view: Kate's, Stuart's and that of Walker, recently released from prison after serving 18 years for killing a man. Irresistibly drawn back to his childhood home, hoping to find some traces of his family's life there, he offers to haul away Kate's trash and winds up helping in the reconstruction. Enter the fourth character, Jay, who befriends Kate and joins the work crew. He does not tell Kate that he was on the two-man cleanup squad hired to wash away the blood and gore from the murder scene.

When she learns the truth about her new friends, she explodes and the inevitable yet unforeseeable tragedy breaks over them. Laken is too good a writer to build a tidy end. She sees them clearly and understands that some fissures within and between people can be mended but others will widen into savage breaks.

Brigitte Frase also reviews books for the Los Angeles Times. She lives in Minneapolis.