When I first started Ohio I had an overwhelming urge to put it down and leave it there. I kept letting myself get distracted but at the same time also kept dipping back in... Until I read some reviews that reminded me why my interest had been piqued by the initial summary I had read. I don’t like giving up on the first try, and I’m so SO glad I didn’t give up on Ohio. It’s a brilliant piece of work.
That said, it’s dark, bleak, depressing, sad, hopeless, grey brilliance. You aren’t going to find many rainbows in the narrative. It’s also absolutely epic. The story mainly takes place in a small town called New Canaan in the middle of nowhere Ohio, but we are also granted visions of different places of the world through the characters eyes and experiences. From small town America we see the absolute destruction that mankind is wreaking on the world.
Rick, Bill, Dan, Tina, Kaylyn, Todd, Ben, Lisa, and Stacey grow up together in New Canaan, where high school is the usual type of high school experience you can imagine in a small US town. Told from the perspective of Bill, Dan, Tina, and Stacey, the narrative spans from the days right before 9/11 to 2017, and reads like a thriller. They all know each other in high school, some hang out together, some date, some are in love, but they all lose sight of each other in some shape or form when they graduate. But their high school experiences dominate the choices they make for the rest of their lives. And many of those choices are really shitty.
New Canaan is small town America at its most (not) glorious: a place where unemployment, opioid addiction, and desolation plague the town, and where a very strong sense of white supremacy holds its ground. There is a big sense of white boy privilege and entitlement in the male characters, and a lot of no beating around the bush prejudice, male domination, and racist and bigoted talk. And a ton of Brock Turner style crap going on that is hard to read from a woman’s point of view, but which ends up being a great overview of how normalized this type of behavior is in our society.
The novel is full of strong language (which really clashes in the most spectacular fashion against the author’s beautiful writing), awful people, disgusting events, and vomit-worthy images. Stephen Markley holds nothing back, and everything is described in a harrowing manner. It didn’t actually dawn on me that I was actually reading a thriller until I sensed that pit of intensity in my stomach, wondering what would happen on the next page, or more what would be revealed on the next page. All I can say is that if you find yourself struggling at first, just get through the prologue. It all starts to make sense once you do. I love how this novel gives this incredible overview of towns that are forgotten but who don’t forget to vote, and it definitely doesn’t become any kind of excuse for why they are the way they are. Just reality: pure, non-sugarcoated reality.
The only little thing that bothered me a little were that I got the names confused more than once, especially Ben and Bill, and this then confused me in the narrative somewhat, especially as the timelines jump back and forth quite erratically (I like that about the story though). What I’m basically trying to say is that this book requires focus, and a strong stomach.
A 4.5 in my point of view, however, if you are triggered by heavily detailed war scenes, sexual assault, and/or murder scenes you may want to sit this one out. Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the advance copy!!
Also: I LOVE all of the references to literature in Ohio. The way Stephen Markley weaves it through his narrative is wonderful... The haggard diner waitress reciting poetry, the old photograph in the copy of Gaia... Just brilliant.