"Ocean State" is the story of a murder, but it wouldn't be right to call it a mystery, because the killer's identity is established in the very first sentence. Even as he inverts the form, veteran novelist Stewart O'Nan effectively keeps you turning the pages quickly with this tragic story of teenage love.
Set in a working class town on the coast of Rhode Island, "Ocean State" starts with Marie, who's looking back a decade to 2009. "When I was in eighth grade my sister helped kill another girl," Marie says, before quickly filling in the other pertinent details: working-class family, children of divorce, high school love triangle gone wrong.
The book goes on to shift narrators: Marie's sister, her mother, and the murder victim all take turns. But Marie is the most engaging character: at times naïve, at times wise beyond her years, struggling with the pains of a lonely adolescence even as a much larger tragedy starts to unfold around her, one she both knows more about than she should, and cannot truly understand.
You might find yourself wishing the narration stayed with Marie throughout. But it should be mentioned that the sections of the story narrated by the murder victim, Birdy, gather an almost excruciating tension as she approaches her inevitable fate. O'Nan makes her much more than a simple plot device, and it's what elevates the story to more than just a page-turner.
Still, O'Nan, the author of more than 20 books, mostly novels, makes a debatable choice in the way he presents the two murderers. He's non-judgmental to an almost extreme level, and although he eventually fills in the how of what happened, he keeps the why somewhat foggy.
That may say something true about the nature of violent crime among teenagers, but as the story speeds toward its resolution, it's hard to not feel frustrated at points with the almost casual way the murderers face the consequences — or don't — of the crime they committed.
Patrick Condon is an editor at the Star Tribune.
By: Stewart O'Nan.
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press, 240 pages, $27.