In the first line of Ocean State, we learn that a high school student was murdered, and we find out who did it. The story that unfolds from there is thus one of the build-up to and fall-out from the murder, told through the alternating perspectives of the four women at its heart.
This story of a crime of passion in a small Rhode Island suburb is very much about what is not said rather than what is said, and about the violence that can explode out of a calm that would seem to be the opposite of turbulent. Despite the banal surface, this novel invites us in — we want to know these people, learn about their complexities ... O’Nan’s great gift is that we want to know more about every person he writes, no matter how unremarkable they seem from the outside ... It’s hard to tell why O’Nan left out the male perspectives, as at moments the novel feels like it is missing something without them. And yet the development of the book shows these women and their very separate voices singing in a bittersweet counterpoint that rises to an unforgettable shout and then subsides ... Through prolonged exposure to the girls’ thoughts, O’Nan builds the novel’s tension until it feels like the air right before a monsoon ... The entire telling becomes an act of empathy. It’s an invention, but one that drives home irrevocably and elegantly what you’d been feeling as you read but did not fully acknowledge: that there are as many different kinds of pain as there are people.
Stewart O’Nan opens his new novel, Ocean State, with this grabby narration by one Marie Oliviera: 'When I was in eighth grade my sister helped kill another girl.' It almost sounds as if he’s about to launch into one of those contemporary twisty thrillers, but what he does with this quick sketch of a plot is far more interesting and enduring ... Whatever the genre he’s playing with, O’Nan is an enticing writer, a master of the illuminatingly mundane moments ... O’Nan is subverting the thriller, borrowing its momentum to propel this bracing, chilling novel. Whereas thrillers tend to use murders as a prurient jumping-off point, the entryway to the reader’s pleasure — that chance to play Columbo or Kinsey Millhone in our heads — O’Nan takes his time, humanizing this story to make the hole where the victim was suitably substantial. Highly specific to the landmarks of the real Ashaway, but ringing with the universal, Ocean State is a map for the emotional dead ends of America, where kids kill other kids over seemingly nothing. O’Nan understands that at least in the moment, it is for everything.
Ocean State is a haunting immersion into the desperate and immediate world of adolescence gone wrong, where emotional certainty dictates that actions be taken before rational minds can pull back. The result is a gripping march to the inevitable, presented through the close perspective of four women whose lives will soon be forever changed ... Despite her preteen awkwardness, Marie is a voice of burgeoning wisdom, and we benefit from her periodic turns as narrator, a shift that proves especially powerful at novel’s end ... Descriptions are simple and to the point, with thoughtful prose matching the surroundings ... In addition to granting us close proximity to each character’s movements, O’Nan deftly provides a larger collage of the enormity that unfolds, leaving us with reflection of the tenuousness of life, the wish that this tragedy could have been avoided, and the privilege of having been witness to its progression.