Ocean State by Stewart O’Nan: A keeper of secrets

Cover image for Ocrean State by Stewart O'NanI was keen to read Stewart O’Nan’s Ocean State having enjoyed his sympathetic, wryly humorous portrait of ageing, Henry, Himself, a few years ago. This new novel sounded entirely different. Opening just before Halloween in 2009, it arrived with a handful of American sweets as part of the marketing package including Tootsie Rolls which frequently turn up in American fiction. For anyone interested, it’s a bit like toffee, very sweet and extremely chewy. Set in smalltown Rhode Island, Ocean State sees Marie looking back to a devastating act of violence when she was thirteen years old.

When I was in eight grade my sister helped kill another girl

Marie adores her beautiful, sassy older sister. Smart, popular and sporty, Angel has been with her boyfriend for three years. As the end of high school looms, she knows there’s little hope of their relationship continuing – Myles is from a wealthy, respectable background, while Angel’s mother struggles to keep the bills paid, constantly chasing after the next man she’s convinced will fulfil her dreams, much to Angel’s disgust. While Carol continues to embroil herself with unsuitable men and Angel is wrapped up in Myles, Marie spends lonely evenings, eating too much, investigating Angel’s bedroom and swigging Carol’s wine. Meanwhile, Birdy has been sitting on the secret of her affair with Myles, increasingly mired in deceit so that it’s almost a relief when their careful subterfuge is exposed. We know from the start what the outcome will be.

At times I let myself think that maybe we were safe, yet even at my most wishful I didn’t really believe it

This taut, quietly understated novel’s opening sentence sets us up for suspense before taking its time to unfold the events that led up to the murder. O’Nan vividly captures the intensity of teenage love and lust played out against the backdrop of a small town. School is a hothouse of gossip, rivalry and speculation. Marie’s narrative frames her story whose perspectives shift between its four female protagonists so that we come to know each of them intimately. Myles, the handsome, spoilt rich boy seems almost an irrelevance beside the complexities of the women’s characters, all of whom are convincing but it’s Marie who’s the star of the show, the quietly devasted keeper of secrets who seems to bear the heaviest burden. An immersive, compelling novel – the bold stroke of that dramatic opening announcement pays off well.

Grove Press UK: London ‎ 9781611856552 240 pages Hardback

26 thoughts on “Ocean State by Stewart O’Nan: A keeper of secrets”

  1. This sounds so well done – not sensationalist at all, carefully considering how such an awful event could occur. I’ll look out for this author, I think I’ll enjoy him.

  2. I’ve not read anything by Stewart O’Nan, but it sounds like he’s one of those authors who never writes the same book twice. I’m most attracted by A Prayer for the Dying because of its historical epidemic subject, but I imagine I’d like much of what he’s written.

    I had to laugh at your description of a Tootsie roll. Not one of my country’s finer exports!

  3. Good review. So fun about Tootsie Rolls–I didn’t know they weren’t a thing in the UK. Also, I had to do research to find a book set in Rhode Island when I was doing my Reading Across the USA project. I’ll add this one to the list I’m making for others wanting yet another list of books by state (some of the lists are so weird! The newest one from NPR had some bizarre entries! Here it is if interested https://www.npr.org/2022/05/13/1098827190/what-to-read-summer-travel

    1. Glad to hear that and thank you. I’ll check out the states I’ve visited on holiday. I wonder what we might have in the UK that puzzles American readers. Marmite could be a contender.

          1. It just sounds GROSS. Also, tho I do know what they are and how they look, I’ve never seen a minced pie or hot cross bun in a store here or eaten one. Maybe in New England since they are a thing in Canada? Mincedmeat Pie is something my Mom used to make for my Great Uncle’s using their mothers receipt. I imagine I tasted it as a child but have no memory. Fruitcake and similar are not a thing here except as joke gifts at Christmas. A brick is how we see fruitcake

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