Descent by Tim Johnston (Algonquin, Jan. 6th, 2015)-Tim Johnston’s engrossing novel is a testament to survival and the human spirit, and if you’re looking for a thriller that’s a cut above, you’ve found it. Grant and Angela Courtland and his children are vacationing in the Rocky Mountains when his 18 year old daughter Caitlin goes for a run up the mountain, with her younger brother Sean trailing behind her. Caitlin runs like the wind, and although her parents’ relationship may not be perfect, their love for her is, but today is the day that her feet will fail her, when she will disappear from that mountain, leaving her brother, and her parents, in a wake of pain and heartbreak. The novel covers the two years after her disappearance, and the very different ways that each person deals with her absence. Grant, a contractor, settles in with Sean to help out on a ranch close to where Caitlin disappeared, determined not to give up the search, even though Sean eventually works out his pain on the road, away from constant reminders of his sister and the day she disappeared. Angela is seemingly more fragile, but this fragility belies her hope that eventually her daughter will come home.
Johnston has created a character study/thriller hybrid that works in spades, exploring how a family deals with such a heartbreaking and unthinkable situation. Each of them are flawed, but it’s that very humanity that makes them worth rooting for. Tim Johnston writes beautifully and combines Larry McMurtry’s eye for poetic grit and human foible with a thriller writer’s skill at crafting an unexpected story that will keep you riveted. As a parent, some passages were heartbreaking in their intensity, and indeed, this novel is intense, as much as it achieves moments of emotional delicacy and palpable dread. Johnston has a profound understanding of the human heart and the dynamics of family, as well as the how trauma damages us psychologically. This is a smart, very surprising thriller, and so many times I thought I knew how this would end, but I didn’t, and it was so unexpected and just plain fantastic. I love it when a book surprises me as well as makes me care about characters as much as I came to care about the Courtland family, in all their messy imperfection. You won’t want to miss this beautifully written, sometimes terrifying, always compelling thriller.