"Descent, the story of a family undone by the disappearance of a daughter who went out for a morning run and didn't come back, marks the adult fiction debut of a remarkable young writer. Stunning in its emotional impact, Descent is a compulsively readable page-turner with a strong literary sensibility. The girl's vanishing--on a sunny, late-summer vacation morning--all the more devastating for its mystery, is the beginning the family's harrowing journey down increasingly divergent and solitary paths, until all that continues to bind them to each other are the questions they can never bring themselves to ask: At what point does a family stop searching? At what point does a girl stop fighting for her life? In the weeks and months that follow, hope leads to disillusionment, and each of them--father, mother, son--withdraws into emotional isolation, individually assessing the blame and assuming the responsibility for their collective loss. Haunting and unforgettable, Descent is a novel that will grab the reader's heart and mind, and will linger there long after the last page is turned"--
Johnston, a native of Iowa City, Iowa, teaches creative writing at the University of Memphis. He has authored a young adult novel, Never So Green, and a short story collection, Irish Girl, which won the prestigious Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction. Descent is his first adult novel (Dust Jacket). And what a first it is!
Grant and Angela Courtland have two children – Caitlin, 18, and about to enter college on an athletic scholarship as a cross-country runner, and Sean, 16, who idolizes his sister. The family travels to the Rocky Mountains for a vacation. One morning, Caitlin goes out for a run, followed by Sean on a mountain bike. Their travels take them up a mountain and down to a road. Sean skids onto the road and is hit by some sort of SUV. Caitlin returns to him and finds he is seriously injured. She has no cell phone signal. The driver offers to drive her to the nearest town to get help. Someone alerts the police, and they find Sean by the side of the road. But Caitlin has disappeared.
After hundreds of reviews, I can honestly say I have never used the term “Page Turner.” But Descent is exactly that. Like all fine fiction, I did not know how the story would end, and I did not care. The emotions the characters experienced were eerily real. The narrative was so taut, so detailed, and so exciting, that was all I needed to keep going.
Angela experienced a tragedy when she was young, losing her twin sister in a swimming accident. This dark, cloudy memory overhangs the entire story. The sheriff locates Grant and Angela. Johnston writes, “Now in the little motel room, his wife’s phone to his ear, he begged: Please God, please God, and the sheriff was asking him again where he was at, telling him to stay put. The boy was safe, he was sleeping. He was coming to get them, the sheriff – no more than fifteen minutes. He would take them up there himself, up the mountain. He would take them wherever they needed to go. But they wouldn’t be here when the sheriff arrived, Grant knew. They would be on the mountain, on their way up. The boy was safe. The boy was sleeping. Grant would be at the wheel and Angela would be at the maps, they way it was in the life before, the way it would be in the life to come” (19).
The story has several twists and turns, and the action happens so fast I am reminded of a slalom skier flying down a mountain. Descent by Tim Johnston is about as exciting a novel as I have ever read. Any cliché which comes to mind – page-turner, edge-of-the-seat, hair-raising – they all fit. I am even in a rare agreement with a jacket blurb – “Lyrical and hypnotic […] a pulse-pounding thriller.” My next order of business: order his collection of short stories, and then wait for another novel. 5 stars.
This book was so much more than the escapist thriller I was expecting. It never goes in the expected direction. Johnston's writing style is spare but evocative, and he does a remarkable job of breathing life into the wild mountain setting and all the characters, large and small, allowing the reader to fully inhabit this book's world. While the subject matter is undeniably rough--
I am personally well-acquainted with the Canadian Rockies yet Johnston's Rockies are completely foreign: there was nothing familiar in his setting. The chapters jump around a lot, making the flow erratic as the reader must re-adjust every few pages to determine whose story is being told and at what point in time. But despite that, Johnston has a way with words and portrays events in perfect detail. Regarding a rating, however, I'm torn: I disliked the story even though it was well-written.
As good as this book is--and it is--I must add, I wasn't the right reader for it. I received a copy in a free giveaway, although I might have bought it for myself, it because it looked exciting and promised to explore the characters' lives. But it's really intense.
I can read thrillers that leave some divide between me and the characters, so the excitement is like what you get on a roller coaster. You're scared, but you know it's not real, that you can get off the ride, that you'll be safe at the end.
That wasn't the case for me with this book. The crime in this novel is too real--it's happened over and over, as we see in the news. And the damage to the characters--not just physically, but emotionally and every other way--is also too realistic and horrifying.
In short, this story is the stuff of nightmares. But they're the kind that have really happened, and will happen again because evil is real, and it's out there in our society.
So--kudos to the author for a well-written book. I gave it 4 stars because it would feel wrong to downgrade it because of my personal preferences for lighter fare. But it's not for sensitive readers who may be deeply troubled by its violence and description of pain and suffering.
The action begins in a resort on the scenic Trail Ridge Road that winds through the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies. It’s summer, and the Cortlands (Grant and Angela and their teenagers, Caitlin and Sean) have come to the Rocky Mountain Nat’l Park on vacation so that distance runner Caitlin can train at high-altitude.
As the novel opens, Caitlin is leaving the motel for an early morning run. Younger brother Sean is following her on a rented mountain bike. They climb higher and higher and Sean struggles to keep up with Caitlin. He falls behind and suddenly a speeding vehicle bears down on him. Sean is injured and wakes in the hospital. But what of Caitlin? She is missing. The remainder of the novel tell of the search for Caitlin and her family’s attempt to cope with their loss. The story is told in 60 chapters that range from 1 to 10 pages. Each chapter deals with a vignette or detail of the story.
Parts of this novel were not to my liking: first, I could not believe that a flatlander, even a high-school cross-country runner, could arrive in Colorado and run at altitudes above 9,000 ft. on her first day. Second, the mountain scenes are exaggerated: the author writes of lush mixed forests at altitudes where only scrub forest can survive, he gives us a animals not found in the high mountains such as a pair of Northern Cardinals. I also disliked the author continually referring to Sean as “the boy” and Caitlin as “the girl”— I felt that these terms kept me from knowing the characters as people. Finally, some chapters seemed brief and cryptic to the point loosing their meaning. But these complaints did not keep me from enjoying the novel.
This is not a slasher novel or a soap opera, but a carefully crafted psychological thriller. The novel reads well and the plot moves forward at a quick pace. If you like experimental fiction in the thriller mode then this may be a good choice for you.
The characters, even the peripheral ones, are well drawn, complete individuals which makes the story even more engrossing.. A page turner, for sure.
program. The book follows a family in the aftermath of their daughter's
kidnapping during a run on vacation in Colorado. The story jumps back and forth
between family members and chronicles their struggles as their lives are turned
upside down by the tragedy. I did not care for the writing style used in the
novel. I felt it was hard to follow and I was frequently confused about who was
speaking and what was happening in the plot. The first half of the book was
difficult to get into, but towards the middle it does pick up and gets
interesting in the end.
The writing is masterful and the descriptions of the mountains that form the bulk of the setting are wonderful, communicating their beauty, magnificence, mystery, and danger.
The narrative moves between characters in a stately and sorrowful way, evoking vast sympathy for these lost family members. Each of their journeys is meaningful and heartbreaking.
The book is relentlessly compelling and unsettling. There are scenes that are as suspenseful and dread inducing as any I have read. A remarkable book.
In this book, we have the story of a young woman abruptly kidnapped while her family is vacationing in the mountains. The novel focuses on the psychological impact this has on her parents and younger brother. We see them try to deal with Caitlin's disappearance over several years, and their coping skills vary; sometimes they make healthy choices and sometimes they don't. We also have the story of the search itself and the drama of whether Caitlin will ever be found.
At times, I was confused about where we were in time in the novel, and whose point of view was being expressed. The author used this device once or twice to great dramatic effect; other times, it was less effective. But overall, I thought the writing was very good.
I would read more by this author, and that, I think, is a strong endorsement of any author.
I received a copy of this book via Librarything for a review and Wow, am I glad I was one of the lucky recipients! What a good story!
A family heads up into the mountains of Colorado on vacation. The daughter, Caitlyn and son, Sean, both teenagers, go for a run/bike ride one morning but only Sean comes back, in an ambulance. There's a car accident that injures Sean and Caitlyn is abducted by the driver of the vehicle when he offers to take her to get help. She disappears and the family are devastated. While Sean recovers, the search parties comb the mountains for Caitlyn. The story delves into the repercussions to the relationships of the remaining family members, how it changes them individually and as a family over the next couple of years.
Grant, the father, stays on in Colorado, living with an older man, the father of the Sherrif, while he continues to stay on top of the search and investigation. He clashes with the old man's other son, Billy, who is spoiled, selfish, disrespectful and resentful. Angela, the mother, returns to Wisconsin with Sean who returns to school after his injuries heal. Angela is devastated and can't cope with life. She retreats emotionally and Sean leaves school and wanders around the countryside, alone, doing odd jobs for cash to survive. After a bit of trouble, he and his father awkwardly reunite and begin to find their way back.
But it's also a story of survival and courage.
(spoilers here on in)
We discover that Caitlyn is alive and chained in a small shack, used and abused by the man that took her. We find out that she does what she has to in order to survive. A chance encounter by Billy with a man in a bar sparks something in this man who has lived a wasted life. Billy ends up being the hero after a chase and deadly encounter on a snowy night on a mountain and Caitlyn escapes by taking drastic measures.
I had to reread the encounter between Billy and the kidnapper because I didn't know what it was that made Billy go after him but realized that during the conversation, the stranger knew one or two details about the abduction that Billy realizes wasn't publicized at the time. There isn't really any reason why Billy, a man who has been depicted as completely selfish suddenly decides to try to find out if this man did kidnap Caitlyn. But then again, his father had just died and perhaps that made him want to prove to his dad and brother and, finally, to himself that he still had some decency left.
I thought the book was well written and well paced. The family dynamics and the after effects of Caitlyn's disappearance on each of them weighed hard and affected them in different ways. The conclusion made you wonder what the effects of the past few years would do to the family going forward but going into that would only drag out the ending of the book.
Descent is the type of novel in which one could expound upon the plot without giving away key moments. One could discuss the characters at length and barely touch on their complexity and depth. One could even analyze the emotional elements, of which there are many. However, to do any of that in a review would be to set future readers’ expectations or cause them to anticipate certain behaviors or actions. This would only diminish one’s reading enjoyment and cause disappointment for a novel that deserves none. To experience the full power of a novel like Descent, one must go into it cold, with no set expectations or ideas of what happens outside of the basic plot as given in the synopsis. Only then can a reader fully appreciate the scope of the novel and everything Mr. Johnston achieves within its pages.
To put it simply, Descent is a powerful novel. Mr. Johnston captures all of the turmoil and determination of a desperate family. He then layers onto it the full gamut of human experience, showcasing the good, the bad, and the ugly in the world. Just when one thinks the story cannot get any bleaker or more intense, he teases readers with hope. Descent is a thriller of the best kind not only because of the action and suspense but because of the emotional drama underlying it all.