Review: “Ohio” by Stephen Markley

“Do you ever review fiction?” my husband asked the other day. As a matter of fact, I do (and have, here, here, here, and here). It just seems to be an easier task to get hold of good non-fiction. There must be a LOT of reviewers vying for the approval lists for fiction titles. Sometimes, I get lucky. And sometimes, I get very lucky. “Ohio” is one of those latter instances of a lot of luck. I may be having a bear of a time finding employment, but at least the reading list stays interesting.

“Ohio” is the debut novel of author Stephen Markley, a man so mysterious that his biography contains less factual content than the first two sentences of this post. I would love to know why he decided to set his story in the fictional midwestern town of New Canaan (for fact lovers: there is a Canaan, Ohio, although I cannot say how much or if at all it has influenced the description of the setting in the book). I live only one state over, however, and many of the problems of the area more or less affectionately named “the Rust Belt”, like dying industry and shrinking agriculture, apply across the swath of the upper Midwest.

The novel drops us into a memorial parade for a young soldier, a son of New Canaan, killed in action only a handful of years after high school graduation. Ah, you think to yourself, this is about the dead kid! It could have been, but it isn’t. The next chapters introduce us to people from Rick’s circle, both close and not so close. As each character has his or her story told, the voice changes accordingly. If you are easily confused by storytelling techniques such as this, you’ve been warned. Aha!, you might exclaim, it’s about something that connects all these kids! Definitely warmer. There is indeed a common thread here, at first barely perceptible, but naggingly present, even if its true meaning is not revealed until much later.

There is also a character study here, although it’s not of people, it’s of a town. Sure, you nod, there are lots of points to New Canaan that I recognize. And you will, as I did, but again, don’t take things at face value here. This is not about The Town Next Door, so to speak, but goes much deeper. New Canaan is a place that breeds its own kind of horror and tragedy, and what will hook you in and make you stay with the narrative until its breathtaking conclusion is the realization that, perhaps, nobody who has spent any real time in this town gets away unscathed – not even minor characters.

Adjectives like “breathtaking,” “heartstopping,” and the ever-overused “stunning” give me goosebumps, and not for a good reason, but where “Ohio” is concerned, they are not only applicable but true. When I finished the book, I felt as if someone had clonked me in the head with a shovel: I was unable to do anything but sit there and breathe, until I had collected myself. That is why “Ohio” is hands down THE best novel I have read this year, and why you should not miss it when it comes out in August!

“Ohio” is published by Simon & Schuster. I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.

ohio