The missing girl has become a common, almost tiresome, plot device in suspense fiction, which makes what novelist Tim Johnston does with the premise all the more remarkable.
Author of the young adult novel Never So Green and the story collection Irish Girl, Johnston takes this overused idea ripe for sensationalism and instead puts his own thoughtful, empathetic literary stamp on it. Descent is first and foremost a thriller — you’ll want to make sure no one interrupts you when you hit the last 100 pages — but what makes the novel unforgettable is its sense of character, its deliberate, unadorned prose and Johnston’s unflinching exploration of human endurance, physical and psychological.
As the novel opens, the Courtland family is waking up to their vacation in the Rocky Mountains. College-bound Caitlin is up at daybreak, shaking her unwilling but easily persuaded younger brother Sean awake to join her on a run through the mountains.
An athlete, Caitlin easily navigates the uphill road where they end up; Sean, overweight, grumpy but dutiful, puffs along behind her on a mountain bike. As they sweat their way up into the mountains, their parents take the opportunity for a little connection of their own. Johnston gives us reason to believe they have perhaps weathered some rocky days and can use a bit of recreation.
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But then comes the phone call from the sheriff. Sean is in the hospital after some sort of accident, his leg “banged up pretty good.” Let me talk to my daughter, Grant Courtland asks. “Your daughter...?” the sheriff responds in confusion. Caitlin has vanished, and Sean, dazed and injured, says he can’t remember what happened.
All this occurs in a rush in the first chapter, and what you expect next are detectives springing into action, search parties forming, a desperate rush through the mountains for clues. Instead, Johnston fast forwards more than a year, as the shattered family stumbles through long days and nights after the initial flurry of activity is over.
Grant has remained in Colorado, keeping an eye on the sheriff’s elderly father and ne’er do well brother as he wrestles with the vague need to stay close to where Caitlin disappeared. His wife Angela has returned home to live with her sister, trying to fit herself back into her life but failing. Sean has bounced between the two and finally taken off in his father’s car, wandering, working odd jobs and doing battle with the memories — yes, he does have them — that haunt him.
A reader could be forgiven for wincing at the realization that the questions surrounding Caitlin’s disappearance won’t be revealed quickly. Nor does Descent lapse into the oddly comforting paces of the police procedural. Instead, painfully, time passes. Johnston sifts through the emotional wreckage of the Courtlands, driven apart by the tragedy. He renders each character’s suffering with a searing compassion: Sean’s guilty stoicism, Angela’s free fall into hopelessness, Grant’s once-sweet, now agonizing, reminiscences.
“Grant thought of his children, his own children — of carrying them to their beds when they were small. The limp human weight of them, the young scent of their skins, the murmurs as he lay them down. ... He stood outside the old man’s window, remember that this had happened, that it was true.”
When do we give up hope? When should we? Those are the questions Descent probes as it builds to its thrilling conclusion. If Johnston writes more books like this, the genre will be all the better for it.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.