Saturday, February 7, 2015

Descent by Tim Johnston

Descent is a compelling literary thriller that illuminates the lives of a family falling apart after their daughter disappears on what should have been a happy vacation.

“Her name was Caitlin, she was eighteen, and her own heart would sometimes wake her – flying away in that dream-race where finish lines grew farther away, not nearer, where knees turned to taffy, or feet to stones.” 

Caitlin’s fifteen-year-old brother, Sean, follows her on a rented mountain bike as she runs through the Rocky Mountains on her pre-college trip.  He crashes and breaks his leg and since there’s no cell service, Caitlin accepts a stranger’s offer to drive her into town to get help.

Soon their parents receive a call that Sean is in the local hospital and they realize that Caitlin is missing. As Sean recuperates from his physical wounds, the search continues and the family disintegrates. Angela, the mother, returns to their Wisconsin home while Grant, the father, and Sean remain to search for Caitlin. During the following two years, when there doesn’t seem to be any hope of finding Caitlin, Angela attempts suicide, Sean wanders through the west getting into skirmishes, and Grant stays in the resort town where Caitlin disappeared and builds a life of odd jobs, drinking, and monitoring the search for Caitlin.

The climax builds when a minor character acts recklessly to set the thrilling denouement into motion. As I held my breath, wiped my tears, and thanked the stars for an author like Johnston, the book put me on a roller coaster ride that held a twist I could never have imagined. The minute I finished this book, I wanted to find someone, somewhere, who’d read it so we could talk about hope, courage, and determination.  

We’ve all read tales with similar plots, but we rarely read books with both the exquisitely evocative language of this novel and with a hold-your-breath, take-no-prisoners ending.  Descent has the gothic feel of something by Dennis Lehane, Ron Rash, or Russell Banks coupled with the immediacy and psychological drama of Emma Donoghue’s searing novel Room. At times this novel is painful; I set it down and walked away twice needing to do something ordinary. After I folded laundry and looked outside my window to convince myself that I wasn’t being held captive in a mountain cabin, I returned to Descent anxiously awaiting Caitlin’s fate. Despite my forays into the quotidian, I finished the book in just over a day and predict a similar fate for most readers.

Summing it Up: Descent is a rare mixture of poetic words, heart-rending action, courageous exploits, superhuman survival tactics, fear, and hope. Don’t start this novel if you have any pending commitments as you won’t be able to walk away from the last hundred pages.

Rating:  5 stars   
Category: Mysteries and Thrillers, Fiction, Gourmet, Book Club
Publication date: January 6, 2015
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