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.
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; Sean, overweight, grumpy but dutiful, puffs along on a mountain bike. Their parents take the opportunity for a little connection of their own. We're led to think they have perhaps weathered some rocky days and can use a bit of recreation.
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 instead of detectives springing into action, search parties forming, a desperate rush through the mountains for clues, 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 back into her life but failing. Sean had bounced between them and then takes off in his father's car, wandering, working odd jobs and battling the memories 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. Johnston renders each character's suffering with a searing compassion: Sean's guilty stoicism, Angela's free-fall into hopelessness, Grant's agonizing reminiscences.
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.