Book Review: Descent by Tim Johnston

I think i should probably be completely honest here, I read Descent – the new literary thriller by Tim Johnston – based purely on NPR’s review of the novel earlier this month. I’m quite certain that if I had not read that review I would never have picked up this book. The review praised it. It promised that this book would have everything I love in a good thriller – plot twists, good writing, strong and complex characters, a dark atmosphere…to name a few. So, I quickly logged onto my library account, put a hold on the book (I was only 1 of 15 people who wanted it!) and waited patiently for it to arrive. A week later, it did.

There is no real reason for me telling you about how I came across the book, except that I trust NPR’s reviews and have rarely found one that led me wrong (also, I wanted to show just how much I was looking forward to reading this book). And before I get to telling you whether the book lived up to my expectation, I should probably tell you a little about the book.

Johnston’s thriller is set in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains where the Courtland family have decided to spend their family vacation – primarily for their 18 year old daughter, Caitlin, who is about to go off to college. Caitlin, a teenage track and field star, seems to have one purpose to this trip – to run up the mountain. A task, for which, she enlists her younger brother – Sean –  to complete. One morning, Caitlin and Sean, make their way up the mountain; however, only Sean returns – beaten and broken in both body and mind. The remainder of the novel is essentially about the unmitigated, unrelenting torture the Courtlands go through for the next few years.

Now the reason NPR liked this novel so much, and undoubtedly it is a major component to the reason I kept reading, was the way in which Johnston was able to take a premise as simplistic as this and turn it into something that goes beyond the generic Criminal Minds plot line the novel could easily have become. Rather, Johnston weaves and develops a strong and wonderful examination of how people react to tragedy and grief, one that actually manages to exceed the conventions of a thriller.

Each character is affected by Caitlin’s disappearance in a very different way:her brother becomes a drifter, touring the American roadways, searching for another innocent life he can save to distract his guilt over not saving his sister; her father gives up his life to stay in Colorado, forever searching for his daughter and the man who took her, while making a new life for himself amongst the residents in the town where his daughter was lost; and her mother, who has never fully recovered from past family tragedies, disappears into a cloud of depression and loss. Amongst these stories of loss, we of course see Caitlin – struggling to maintain her humanity while enduring her own set of tortures at the hands of a madman.

The book races – or at least it felt that way – towards a conclusion that is not only surprising but seems to come out of nowhere. It was a conclusion that actually made me mutter “well that was unexpected.”

But now to address the question of whether the book delivered on the promises laid out by NPR…well, yes and no. Sure the novel was a pulse pounding thriller that certainly propelled me to keep reading, but there were other issues that seemingly distracted me from those qualities.

But I was promised complex characters…and sure, the novel gave me a bunch of them, except the female characters.

I primarily had issues with the representation of women – which is not hard to imagine, given it is a novel about an 18 year old girl who is kidnapped and held hostage for 3 years. None of the women had anything resembling agency, in any way. They were completely passive characters – men did things to them, spoke for them, explained things for (and about) them. While Caitlin certainly comes off the worst in this, seeing as how she is the novel’s primary victim, I actually found her mother to suffer even more from this – we see her rarely throughout the novel, but we hear about her quite a bit, mostly to explain away her absence, by explaining her mental state to the reader. She does not get an active role in this explanation.

Certainly, this troubled me, mostly because I actually enjoyed Johnston’s voice when writing both Caitlin and Angela. It felt believable and honest, but as the novel moved along that voice just disappeared and the entire book became about his male characters. Instead, Angela – who seemed to be developing into a really unique and interesting voice – just slipped away. Johnston made so much of her past tragedies, that I expected it to actually play a part in either her narrative, character development or the story as a whole…but I was left with very little as her story just ends rather abruptly. Needlessly so.

However, the question remains: was this enough to prevent me from enjoying the book? No. It wasn’t. I still enjoyed the book as a thriller. It lived up to those expectations, but it just needed to go further and do more with certain characters. I felt pleased with certain characters’ resolutions, yet others left me puzzled and slightly cold.

But if I am reviewing it as just a thriller…then sure, it works perfectly. I mean, I read it over two days – even going so far as taking a longer commute home just to keep reading. So, would I recommend. Sure…if you can overlook the male-centric narrative, and are looking for a really good thrill ride, grab it from your library.

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