Descent: A Novel

by Tim Johnston

Hardcover, 2015




Algonquin Books (2015), Edition: 1, 384 pages


"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"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member rmckeown
I am not much of a fan of thrillers, but when Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill comes out with a novel, I read it, regardless of the genre. Descent, by Tim Johnston might just change my view of suspense novels.

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.

--Jim, 2/8/15
… (more)
LibraryThing member KatyBee
Impossible to put down, this unwinds like a slow burning fever nightmare. Tough subject handled in a great literary style. Love the Colorado mountain wilderness setting.
LibraryThing member VivienneR
Johnston skillfully conveys the utter anguish felt by a familly when their teenage daughter disappears after a car accident where her younger brother was left seriously injured. Then comes guilt, blame, and the unravelling of their lives. It's an unpleasant story, strangely denying any sympathy for the remaining family especially in the early stages of the book.

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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member sturlington
On a family vacation in Colorado, an eighteen-year-old girl goes for a run on a deserted mountain road, accompanied by her younger brother on a mountain bike, when the worst thing happens. The boy is left injured, and the girl has disappeared, plummeting her family into a nightmare.

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--there is rape, there is minor animal abuse--the story itself has a quality of myth, addressing themes of fate and chance and what it means to be a hero. This book enthralled me, and I'm sure it will stay with me for a long time.… (more)
LibraryThing member bnbookgirl
Thoroughly enjoyed this book for many reason. Great characters whose stories are told through a terrible crime. I loved every character in the Courtland family. I also enjoyed the fact the ending was good, but not everything was perfect. Not a happily every after. That makes the novel so much more realistic. The setting, (Colorado Rockies) is of course stunning as well. This story could happen to anyone and that is what makes it so intriguing to read. There is good fodder here for book clubs as well. Highly recommend this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member leaseylease
I found the beginning and end of the book thrilling, but was bored silly by the middle. I got the general gist of the family falling apart after the daughter/sister disappears, but there seemed to be way too much detail about their everyday existence. Also, I didn't like the beginning of each chapter - I had trouble figuring out which character was "talking." Maybe that's just me.… (more)
LibraryThing member bagambo
DNF. I could barely get through twenty pages of this book. I had heard so many great things about Descent, so when I won a copy I was thrilled. I was eager to dive right in, but alas the writing did not thrill me in the least. This was one book that did not live up to the hype (or at least the twenty pages I read certainly didn't).… (more)
LibraryThing member LynnCoulter
Descent, by Tim Johnston, is a thriller/suspense novel that will keep you reading late into the night. It's well-written, with realistic, believable characters and a plot that is, as you often hear, ripped from the headlines. Without giving too much away, it's about an abduction and its chilling effects on the family who must go on after one of the children disappears.

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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member AudrieClifford
Descent is one of the most outstanding books I've read in a long time, and I'm a person who reads almost constantly. I was a little surprised about the way the author's style differs somewhat from most other writers, in that while there are several male characters in the book, and many of them are written about extensively, Tim Johnston is so good that he can begin a new chapter with the word "He" and it only takes a few sentences for the reader to know which "he" is being written about. The story itself is sad and dark and unfortunately, so true-to-life. Congratulations, Mr. Johnston. You've made this kind of tragedy so very, very real… (more)
LibraryThing member cartoslibrary
Johnston’s psychological thriller is set in the harsh, unforgiving mountains of Colorado, where famous ski resorts like Breckenridge and Estes Park, share the land with high-altitude survival training venues like Camp Hale, home of the 10th Mountain Division.

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.

… (more)
LibraryThing member AnneWK
While on vacation, a teen-aged brother and sister are out on an unfamiliar Colorado wilderness road, she running to prepare for her college track scholarship and he accompanying her on a rented bike. He is discovered badly hurt and she disappears. In an annoying (to me) tease, the author little by little reveals what happened to these two. We also follow how the sister's disappearance affects the family, the father who remains in Colorado, unwilling to leave the area where his daughter was lost, the mother who returns home to Wisconsin, shattered, and the brother who cannot live a normal life afterward.
The characters, even the peripheral ones, are well drawn, complete individuals which makes the story even more engrossing.. A page turner, for sure.
… (more)
LibraryThing member julie.billing
Marketed as a mystery / thriller, Descent is Johnston's first adult novel and is set largely in Rocky Mountain National Park. The book generally follows a family recovering from a tragedy - or if not recovering, merely living with it - and is vaguely reminiscent of a Joyce Carol Oates novel. The family aspects, although not completely explored, were well done and probably stand out as better writing in my mind than the thriller aspects.

Some confusion does show through in his writing at times. Some chapters are italicized, and not always for the same reason. Also, he often refers to one of the two main characters as "the boy" or "the girl," but then calls them by name, or someone else "the boy" in another chapter. Those things aside, the writing is solid and I thought that the scenes written from Sean's point of view were especially well done, with only a couple of exceptions. This review is based on an advanced copy and those things may be worked out before final publication so I would not discourage reading it based on those points.

A solid start for Tim Johnston's first adult novel. I hope to see more of him though maybe more on the family drama side than the thriller side of the book world.
… (more)
LibraryThing member jen505
What a suspenseful thriller! This was a page turner of a book that I couldn't put down. I loved the setting and the writing style. I will look for more by this author for sure!
LibraryThing member tvordj
There are spoilers below!

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.

Loved it!
… (more)
LibraryThing member readaholic12
Descent is a riveting story, very well written and paced and I could not stop reading until I finished the last page. I'm still thinking about the story and characters days later. It's hard to talk about the story or make comparisons to others in the genre without giving anything away, so I will not talk about the plot except to say it is an often nerve-wracking tale of every parent's worst nightmare. Most of the characters are nuanced, believable and many times heartbreaking, and I expect several of them to stay with me for a very long time. The sense of place is compelling and transporting, and the depictions of the complexity and frailty of human relationships in the wake of a tragedy are very well done. The writing is exceptional, and reminded me at times of Gillian Flynn, Cormack McCarthy, John Irving, Kent Haruf, William Faulkner and Jeffrey Lent to name a few, but still this novel has a unique voice and writing style, and managed to keep me guessing and surprised at the twists and turns until the end. I'll be adding Tim Johnston to my author watch list, and expect to read this book again, more slowly this time. I can't wait to see who options the movie rights to this novel, and will tell my book group to bump this one to the top of the list.… (more)
LibraryThing member karenthib
I received this book as part of the Library Thing Early Reviewers program. Overall, I enjoyed the novel and felt that the twists were interesting, But I also felt like the author was really trying to make sure we knew this was literary crime fiction. I felt like sometimes he was just writing too hard and things didn't flow as organically as they could have. I did like the story and I didn't see the resolution coming a mile away which is sometimes not the case in novels like this. I thought the Angela character really got lost after the first quarter-to-third of the book and would have appreciated having a little bit more of her point of view along the way, even if it was just to add that she was still shattered and not coping well with her daughter's disappearance. I enjoyed Grant's relationship with Emmet Kinney and thought those characters were very well-drawn. I wasn't blown away, but I would definitely recommend this to fans of this genre.… (more)
LibraryThing member bytheseabchcmbr
I received The Descent by Tim Johnston from the LibraryThing Early Reviewer
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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Moppette
Descent is a novel about a disappearance of a daughter and a family coping with the loss. I found the book well written and the characters well fleshed out. The book did not seem like the run of the mill suspense story nor was it overly literary in its telling. Personally I found the book dragging in the beginning but it seemed to pick up in the middle where it held my interest until the end. I look forward to reading future works by Tim Johnston.… (more)
LibraryThing member jjnaaucoin
I received this as an Early Review, and this may be my favorite ER to date. I had a hard time getting into this book in the beginning but I am glad I stuck it out. Like another reviewer stated at times it was hard to follow, but eventually worked through. I enjoyed most of this book, there was some parts I felt were offensive but overall this was a great first novel from Johnston, I hope he writes another he can tell a story. If you are looking for a book you can't wait to open every chance you get....this is for you.… (more)
LibraryThing member LynnB
I really enjoyed reading this novel. I'm not a crime/thriller fan in general, but Mr. Johnston has done an excellent job in bringing strong character development and a realistic plot to the genre....two things I generally find less than satisfactory.

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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member kgallagher625
A daughter is abducted while on a run in the Rocky Mountains and her disappearance ripples through her family as they each react to life without her. The family separates, and each member suffers in his own way as the years go by without clues or closure.

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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Twink
Let's just start with wow.... Tim Johnston's new novel Descent is a gripping, gut-wrenching, stay up until your eyes burn you absolutely have to get your hands on.

The Courtlands decide to take one last family vacation before their daughter Caitlin starts college in the fall. One morning Caitlin and her brother Ben go for a run/bike ride up the trails while parents Grant and Angela sleep in.

And that sleep in becomes Grant and Angela's what if.... because Caitlin is gone and Ben is badly injured...and the Courtlands are thrown into one of those stories you only read about on the front page. They are living the nightmare.

Descent is an exploration of the aftermath of that fateful day, told from the viewpoint of all the family members (including Caitlin) - the recriminations, the slow eroding of relationships and ties in the face of such tragedy. But it's also a story of faith, friendship, hope and fortitude. All slowly laid bare by Johnston's prose - raw and moving, yet elegant in their simplicity.

I had to put the book down and walk away a few times - some of the situations and emotions were overwhelming. Johnston is a powerful writer. And I admit to doing the unthinkable - peeking ahead a few pages just to calm myself down before continuing on. Descent again reaffirms why I love to read - to be moved and transported by the power of words is simply amazing.

The label literary thriller is on the cover blurb of Descent and I think it's totally spot on. Absolutely recommended.
… (more)
LibraryThing member RoxieF
I received Descent as an ARC. It details the story of a family undone by the disappearance of a daughter. It explains the survivor guilt her brother has as he was with her when she was taken. It reveals her parent's anguish. It also gives her side of the story as well as her abductor's POV. It delves into the questions of how long should family look for a missing person, how guilty they feel if they try to move on, and how it tears a family apart. I found parts of the book confusing as it jumps from person to person, and sometimes I was a little confused. However, the story and plot are so interesting, I had a hard time putting the book down and read it in 2 days. Highly recommend!… (more)
LibraryThing member alexand-rra13
This book was amazing. It was a little slow and confusing in the beginning with how much it switched between memories and narrators but once you're in it it's so intense I couldn't put it down. I sped through this book. The writing was surprisingly lyrical in many places despite how dark the plot was. I would recommend this to everyone. Definitely my favorite book from librarything.… (more)
LibraryThing member snora
Page turner. This book took over my life the past two days. A young girl vanishes during a Colorado vacation while on a run with her younger brother. This is a taut thriller that rises above similar novels due to its literary merits. Although the mystery of the lost girl is important, the book is really about the reactions of her family. Each character deals with the loss in their own special way. How does one deal with such a tragedy? An underlying theme is how does a God allow this to happen. Chance? Fate? My only minor objection to the book is the neat, coincidental ending… (more)


Original language



Page: 0.3717 seconds