Astoria is the second in a series of novellas linked to S.P. Miskowski’s Shirley Jackson Award nominated debut, Knock Knock. Each of the linked works follows a different spoke outward from the hub of Knock Knock’s primary characters, a trio of young girls and their immediate families.
One of these is Ethel Sanders, stuck in a life she finds unbearable. She reacts to sudden tragedy by abruptly fleeing Skillute, Washington, the small town she’s lived in all her life. Ethel not only leaves home, but steps out of her whole identity like shed skin. She travels down the Columbia river, which divides Oregon and Washington, toward the small coastal town of Astoria, on the Oregon side. There she tries on aspects of a new life, picking up elements one at a time, fantasizing that all of it’s real. Ethel clings to belief in the possibility of an unhappy middle-aged woman simply leaving behind the mundane existence that caused her dissatisfaction, to truly start over. For a while, it seems she’s reinvented herself, truly run away from the elements in her life that troubled her. But has something come along for the ride? Her escape may not be what it seems.
At times, Miskowski’s approach reminds me of Stephen King’s. Many attribute King’s lasting popularity to the horrific story elements, but I’ve always believed what he does best is tell the story from a place so intimately wound up in a character’s perspective that the reader feels as if they’re living someone else’s experience. Miskowski too writes in a style straightforward and transparent, yet vivid and always engaging. A deceptively simple narrative surface hides churning layers of confusion, pain and psychological turmoil.
Just as in Knock Knock Miskowski leads the reader to identify with the primary characters, in Astoria’s we share Ethel’s turmoil, her desperate grasping at a possible alternate future life. Every time she seems to have taken a step closer to this goal of reinvention, she seems to slip deeper into a state of delusion or self-deception. By the end, Ethel’s situation seems at once more settled, almost domestic, and also nightmarish. Astoria is the most accomplished work of fiction yet from S.P. Miskowski, an author still improving, achieving stronger effects. It’s a work of confidence, of engrossing atmosphere and real narrative control, strongly recommended.