Descent

By Tim Johnson
Algonquin Books, ISBN: 978-1616204778
Paperback, 400 pages. ©2015

On the first day of their family vacation in Colorado, 18-year-old track star Caitlin drags her younger brother, Sean, out in the pre-dawn darkness to bike behind her as she runs. Hours later, the local sheriff calls. Sean has been badly injured in an accident. He was found alone.

Search parties comb the mountains around the resort town for days, weeks, months, until the search for Caitlin is called off. The family is shattered, each member finding their own separate, crooked path through the pieces left behind, each asking hard questions and dreading the answers. What happened? Who’s responsible? If there’s no body, is she still alive?

Author Tim Johnson weaves a masterful tale in this multi-textured thriller where tragedy and the struggle to keep going peels back hidden depths in each of the characters. Descent gives us an inside view of lives shredded by guilt and loss, the terrible toll manifested in unpredictable ways Caitlin’s family could never have imagined. Even local residents are affected by the family’s shocking loss. As in life, some touched by trauma fold while others are honed. Such is the case in Descent, where character development sometimes takes surprising turns.

Johnson’s story settings are real. I saw the Rockies and the flicker of a fire through the black boles in the night forest. I smelled the pine, heard the chittering of the aspens and the crunch of the snow, tasted the rust on my tongue. Each scene felt, for me, as visceral as if I were in it myself. I felt the despair, frustration, fear, and pain each of the characters endured, as well as the hope that slowly, through the length of the book, languished and threatened to flicker out. And when hope flares for the last time, the choice between the inevitable and the unthinkable pushes both character and reader beyond the edge of endurance. I can’t imagine being put in such a no-win conundrum. I hope I never have to plumb my own strength or capabilities to that depth.

I liked that Johnson didn’t try to explain every behavior, every action, every thought or word from his characters. Instead, he laid the seeds that might have led to such things, then let them germinate in unexpected ways. And the plain fact is that sometimes people do horrific things and the rest of us never understand why. It’s appalling to contemplate, yet that’s just the way of the world. The plot of Descent takes on this topic with sensitivity, compassion, and a healthy dose of bald truth whether or not it was acceptable or understandable.

This is my second Tim Johnson experience (the first was The Current, reviewed here). It definitely won’t be my last. In Descent, the author’s lyrical writing style was, at first, a bit daunting. It didn’t take long, though, to fall once more into its rhythm. It felt, to me, almost bardic—a more captivating way to tell a story, one that drew me in naturally until before I even realized it, I was too invested in the lives of these characters and the outcome of the story to put it down. Pacing is well done. Johnson leads us through the emotional turmoil of the tale with just enough rests in between the action to almost let us catch our collective breath before ramping it up once more. Shimmers of hope dangle here and there, gleaming in the light of narrative revelation to keep us tantalized and forging on page after page toward the nail-biting conclusion.

Tim Johnson is definitely on my list of must-read authors from now on. Descent is a captivating read, a twisting journey through the shards of a family’s worst nightmare. If you love a good thriller, don’t miss this one.

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