Published by Algonquin on January 6, 2015;reprinted in paperback on December 1, 2015
Descent is a suspense novel with uncommon literary quality. The plot -- a teenage girl goes missing, leaving frantic parents to worry about her fate -- might be overused, but the story has rarely been told with the kind of quality prose that Tim Johnston wields. In any event, “girl goes missing” is only a backdrop for a story that moves in unexpected directions.
Caitlin, a runner, is with her parents in the Rockies, where she is training for collegiate competition. She goes off one morning with her younger brother, Sean, who follows her on his trail bike. Her brother ends up in the hospital, the apparent victim of a biking accident. Caitlin is missing.
The novel bounces around in time. In what might be called “the present,” Caitlin’s father (Grant) is helping out an old widower in Colorado in exchange for a place to stay. His wife and son have both left him to his misery. Caitlin’s mother (Angela) has gone back to Wisconsin where she carries on inner conversations with her long-dead twin. Sean is trying to live with the shame of not doing more to help Caitlin.
Caitlin’s story unfolds intermittently in short, italicized chapters. Sean has dark adventures of his own, collateral to the main plot but worthy of inclusion in a thriller. Grant deals with family drama in a family that is not his own. Although the troubles that Sean and Grant experience are not directly caused by Caitlin’s disappearance, they would not have happened but for that critical event. Tim Johnston seems to be illustrating how misfortunes compound, how one tragedy can give birth to a chain reaction of unforeseeable consequences. By the end, the story seems to be about how the smallest change of circumstances -- arriving 5 minutes later, taking a different path -- can dictate the course of a life.
Descent is intense and powerful, peppered with surprising moments of drama. It is a work of fiction, but everything about the story seem real -- not just events but emotions, reactions, regrets ... all the things people think and do and feel that define their lives.
Writers are often admonished to show, not tell. Johnston shows the grief the family endures through countless small scenes that recount their actions, their distractions, their quarrels, their memories. Angela’s exploration of an empty house, a house that is haunted by Caitlin’s absence, is heartbreaking. Sean’s drifting and Grant’s drinking, two different approaches to isolation, tell the reader more than pages of exposition possibly good.
Much of Descent is about the impact that a missing child has on the rest of the family, but the story is multifaceted. Descent is about a father trying to reconnect with his son. It’s about deceptive appearances -- people who hide their evil behind a friendly façade but, more importantly, people who are better than they know themselves to be. It’s about the confusion of coincidence and fate, of destiny and free will. It is about the true nature of heroism. Descent is a fascinating exploration of themes that give the novel substantially greater depth than a typical thriller without sacrificing the pace and suspense that thriller readers crave.