Monday, March 30, 2015

DESCENT :: Tim Johnston

Tim Johnston's Descent was one of the most anticipated books of the new year, billed as a "riveting thriller" with "heart-pounding suspense," among other things. Having just finished it, I have to say I got something quite different than I expected. For me, while it certainly had its riveting moments and there was tension, from differing sources, throughout, Descent was a slow burn study of the devastating impact on a family unit and the individuals within it when one of them disappears.

Told in a slightly staccato pattern, jumping from person to person, place to place, and often time to time, it took me the first quarter or so to get into the rhythm of Descent. But suck me in it did, and once I got with the flow I found it quite a compelling read.

The Courtlands, Grant, Angela, Caitlin (18) and Sean (15), are taking one last vacation before Caitlin goes off to college when disaster strikes. Caitlin takes off from the hotel early one morning for a run in the Colorado Rockies, Sean pacing her on his bike. When Sean is hit and badly injured by a car, Caitlin has a choice to make: stay with Sean and hope help arrives or ride down the mountain with the driver, a man who becomes more mysterious and frightening by the minute:

I'll drive you down to where your phone works, he said. Drive you to your folks, if you want. Or the sheriff. Whatever you want. And what? she said. Leave him? He'll be all right here. Nothing will touch him. The man hung his hands on his belt by the thumbs and gave her a kind of smile. Don't be afraid, he said, and until that moment she hadn't been.

Of course, Caitlin decides to go with the stranger to find help for Sean and disappears into the wind. Each member of the Courtland family is left to deal with different fears, guilt, horror, and every other emotion that comes when such a crime hits home, and Descent follows their trajectories over the several years following Caitlin's abduction.

After a year with no news, Angela and Sean return home to Wisconsin while Grant stays in Colorado to continue the search. Sean ultimately returns to Colorado to stay with his father in a cabin on the land of Emmet Kinney, widowed father of both the sheriff in charge of the search for Caitlin, and no-good, black sheep Billy.

For the remaining years covered in the story, Descent focuses on Grant and Sean, each filled with a need to defend and protect Caitlin, even if those acts are taken on behalf of Caitlin surrogates. Sean finds confrontation after confrontation while aimlessly wandering the country in search of something he can't find, while Grant continually butts heads with Billy over his treatment of Emmet (and everyone else; Billy is something of an ahole). As Billy runs out of control, his viciousness ramps up Grant's need for any retribution he can find:

"So," said Grant. "That's how I'm fixed with God. If he will not give me my daughter back, then he owes me one bad man. And you want to know the hell of it? The hell of it, Billy, is that I don't give a damn anymore if it's even the right bad man. I have reached the point where any bad man will do."

Woven into Grant and Sean's narratives are brief flashes of what happened to Caitlin, and watching these three Courtlands struggle with their circumstances is a visceral ride. I thought Johnston did a great job portraying the angst each was going through, Sean and Grant in particular, without simply spelling it out. Rather, he deftly uses the tools of character and place to breathe life into those emotions.

The "thriller" descriptions of Descent do indeed come to pass, as the final quarter of the book races towards the family ultimately finding out Caitlin's fate. I found Descent a really interesting mix of pacing, with the first and final quarters of action sandwiching a middle highlighted by character study. Not to worry, thriller fans, there is plenty of action in that there middle, but I was impressed with how the book changed tones without losing any steam.

The one problem I had with Descent is really something I just didn't understand and that was the author referring to Sean as "the boy" when all of the other characters are identified by name. It struck me as odd. If the intent was to portray Sean as someone who was trying to find himself or didn't really know who he was during the turmoil of this portion of his life, I thought the author made that quite evident with Sean's path through the story. If anyone has any other ideas as to why Sean was referred to this way, I'd love to hear them, as I remain curious.

STREET SENSE:  I understand the categorization of Descent as a thriller and don't know how else I would label it, yet it's different and more than that. I recommend it for anyone who enjoys a good thriller, particularly one with good, emotional character study.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  "Mr. Courtland," he said, and Grant stepped toward the window as though he would walk through it. He'd taken the representations of the mountains on the resort maps, with their colorful tracery of runs and trails and lifts, as the mountains themselves -- less mountains than playgrounds fashioned into the shapes of mountains by men and money. Now he saw the things themselves, so green and massive, humped one upon the other like a heaving sea.

COVER NERD SAYS:  The cover was what immediately attracted me to Descent, so from my perspective it did a great job selling me with atmospheric imagery. I wanted to dive into those foggy mountains to see what secrets they held. I love the way the font color deepened with the descent to the bottom of the book. I did think the cover would have been stronger without the yellow blurb at the top distracting from that dark sky, but I'm not a huge blurb fan to begin with. Overall, very well done.


Chris La Tray said...

I like the cover too.

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

Somehow it does not surprise me that you and I have similar thoughts on this one. :)

Rhonda Hicks said...

I immediately added this to my wish list when I saw the cover and then forgot about it until I saw your review. I ended up getting the audiobook and finished it in 2 days. Had so stop listening a couple of time towards the end - I got so nervous! Great book. Thanks for the review!

Julianne - Outlandish Lit said...

I don't read a lot of thrillers, but this one had definitely intrigued me. And hearing that it's not the most thriller-y thriller would maybe make it more for me. But it's hard to tell if you especially liked it or not. Was it just ok or was it pretty good for you?

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

This is a very good question and one I've struggled with a bit. I think part of my struggle is it felt like two different books, one a thriller, one a character study. I really liked both elements and thought it was an interesting sandwich. There were some good themes and thoughtfulness. I guess in the end I would say there are straight thrillers I would recommend more highly and character studies I would recommend more highly. But if you don't read many thrillers, it might be a good mix for you. I'm not answering your question very well. I'm tainted by Soilgate.

Julianne - Outlandish Lit said...


Malcolm Avenue Review said...

The email notification of this comment went to spam folder. That'll teach you to laugh at me.

Julianne - Outlandish Lit said...

oh god, embarrassing

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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