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Book review

‘Descent’ by Tim Johnston

Tim JohnstonDave Groeber

Absence can be a presence, weighing down on the lives of those left behind. That’s the premise behind “Descent,” a slow boil of a thriller by Tim Johnston.

Playing with various interpretations of its title, “Descent” starts off as the story of Caitlin Courtland, a high school track star. Preparing for the increased competition she will face in college in the fall, Caitlin requests that her Wisconsin-based family vacation in the Rocky Mountains, where she can push her stamina with high-altitude exercise. While she is running early one morning, accompanied by her younger brother on his bicycle, the unthinkable happens. Her brother is struck by a car, and Caitlin is abducted.

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What happens over the next three years makes up the bulk of this book, as each of the family members must weigh leaving the mountains — the scene of the unresolved crime. And it will become his or her individual choices, as well as the pressure of the tragedy, that splinters the family, sending each member spiraling into the grip of their personal demons.

Grant Courtland, Caitlin’s father, drinks too much and is working to salvage his marriage after being unfaithful. Angela, Caitlin’s mother, is already frail, in part because of a childhood tragedy for which she feels at least partially culpable. But it is Sean, Caitlin’s brother, who bears the brunt of the family’s survivor guilt. He was still conscious as he saw his sister climb into the stranger’s car, ostensibly to descend from the peak and fetch help for him.

Johnston, author of a young adult novel and an award-winning short-story collection, sets the tragedy up well. In their bedroom, the morning that Caitlin and Sean set out, Grant and Angela are already dealing with their issues. He wakes her from a nightmare about her dead sister — “a gasp, a spasm, and Angela said ‘No.’ ’’ Minutes later, she answers a call that suggests that he’s cheating again. “She lowered the phone slowly, watching it, and Grant could see it happening. Every second of it. The unbelievable, the irreversible moment.” Of course, the next call — from the police — will make all of this irrelevant, but the fault lines have already been delineated. The Courtlands are ready to shatter.

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Johnston, a deft and careful writer, has some trouble with what follows. As each family member deals with his or her loss, they separate emotionally and physically, and the author gives them parallel story lines that only occasionally intersect.

The problem is that although each has a potentially compelling narrative, Johnston doesn’t make them equally interesting. Caitlin’s ordeal, revealed in fragments, is the most immediately intriguing but, in order to maintain suspense, the author keeps it sketchy.

After her story, Sean’s carries the most weight, both because of his sense of responsibility and because, 15 at the time of the abduction, he grows and changes the most over the ensuing three years.

Perhaps because the parents’ problems date from earlier trauma, much of their narratives involve back story, which feels less immediate. Angela’s tale, in particular, can seem repetitive and dull, especially when compared to the trials of her children.

“Descent” is more than a character study, however, and as the Courtlands’ lives become entwined with that of another troubled family, the focus returns to the central mystery. With years having gone by, nobody expects to find Caitlin alive, but the question of what happened continues to haunt all.

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“Long after everyone else has given up and gone home and gotten on with their lives, he would keep on believing because, without evidence, you could never kill his belief,” says Grant, describing a hypothetical father in his situation.

That belief, Johnston leads us to understand, is as much a curse as a blessing. Although the author does finally resolve the mystery, before he does so, he gives us a palpable sense of how tragedy freezes people. It’s a terrible stasis, an interminable waiting for resolution that may never come, that can hang people up, unable to descend.


Clea Simon is the author of
16 mysteries. She can be reached at cleas@earthlink.net.