A book billed as a thriller that explores a family as they come to grips with the disappearance of a child, the book defied my expectations, for good reasons and bad.
The Rocky Mountains have cast their spell over the Courtlands, who are taking a family vacation before their daughter leaves for college. But when Caitlin and her younger brother, Sean, go out for an early morning run and only Sean returns, the mountains become as terrifying as they are majestic.
Written with a precision that captures every emotion, every moment of fear, as each member of the family searches for answers, Descent races like an avalanche toward its heart-pounding conclusion.
There’s no book in recent memory that I found as challenging to review as I’m finding this one. I think that’s because Descent tries to be two things at once: both a thriller, telling the story of the disappearance of Caitlyn, a high school senior and track star who is abducted while going for a run during a family vacation to the Colorado Rockies, and a deep character study of the family members–her father Grant, her mother Angela, and her brother Sean–and their lives, together and apart, as they grapple with the nightmare of a daughter and a sister who disappears without a trace. Each of these stories would, individually, be a gripping read. Unfortunately, I feel Mr. Johnston tried to do too much, and as a result, taken as a whole, nothing works as well as it could.
Of course, I still enjoyed the book very much, and was up way too late during the big climax. But, the more I thought about the book and talked about it to my wife, the more I couldn’t overlook the flaws in this debut novel.
The book opens with a family vacation that rapidly turns to tragedy as Caitlyn goes for a training run on the back roads of a Colorado mountain town, trailed by her brother Sean on his bike, and is ultimately abducted while her brother is left, injured and semi-conscious, by the side of the road, having been hit by the abductor’s truck. These opening chapters telegraph exactly what to expect from Mr. Johnston’s writing: beautiful prose with unique turns of phrase; a wonderful ability to convey visual detail; and elegant characterization that telegraphs who the characters are without beating the reader over the head with details.
Right away we also get a taste of another of Mr. Johnston’s habits: including subtle hints of broader backstory that can be both effective in building depth to these characters, but can also being frustrating in that some of those back stories might have better been either unpacked or left unsaid. For example, in these opening chapters we learn through implication that Grant previously cheated on Angela, and that he was an alcoholic who lost a pair of fingers in some sort of accident. However, Johnston never really pulls at these threads, nor is it obvious that these details end up impacting the narrative. It’s a frustrating habit that contributes to a sense of stasis as we see these characters as they are but not how they came to be.
What follows is a series of semi-connected storylines with each of the family members, beginning with Angela1 and then followed by Grant and then Sean. It’s in this part of the book that I first noticed the conflict that Mr. Johnston had created for himself: each of these sub-stories is an often beautiful, frequently tragic exploration of these characters as they individually grapple with the mystery of Caitlyn’s disappearance. Here we see a family shattered, each character struggling with their own sense of grief and guilt and anger as they variably blame themselves or each other for their shared tragedy. But what these sub-stories don’t do is advance the thriller narrative itself.
To resolve that, Mr. Johnston interleaves part of Sean’s story with Caitlyn’s as she lives the horror of her abduction, but these chapters have a very different tone, switching from character study to King-like thriller. It’s honestly a bit jarring, but it’s unavoidable given the story the author tries to tell.
Also interesting is the way in which these individual character sub-stories serve to paint a portrait of these people that’s frozen in time. After the initial abduction the reader is flashed forward in time and we see these characters much later. During that time it’s clear they have changed, Sean most of all. However, we never come to learn how those changes happened, nor do we see these characters change any further. In another book I might see this as a flaw, but in the case of Descent I’m willing to give it a pass, if only because, to me, it’s very believable that after Caitlyn’s abduction these people would become unmoored in time, unable to accept what has happened, unable to move on, forever stuck in that moment until Caitlyn is found.
But, it does mean that these sub-stories don’t just fail to move the thriller plotline forward, they also fail to move the characters forward either, which means the book feels static, which is a strange thing to say for something in this genre.
Ultimately, the climax is initiated by an unexpected coincidental meeting in a bar that’s so improbable that Johnston felt compelled to lampshade it by including dialog where the characters talk about how improbable their meeting is. The rest is a rush to a finish that, while certainly driving and tense, felt just a bit too convenient and a bit too perfunctory, with just a bit of King-like gore to stay honest to the genre. Given how much sleep I lost reading this portion, I’m not going to claim it wasn’t enjoyable, but it was objectively a bit too easy of an ending.
Meanwhile, the final part, which is really an epilogue, was enjoyable, but once again we fail to see characters advance and change. Maybe that’s realistic but it doesn’t feel particularly satisfying.
So, would I recommend this book? Yes, with reservations. I will admit I’m a sucker for unique and beautiful prose (e.g. the writing style of The Road by Cormac McCarthy blew me away) and this book delivers. And as a character study it is beautiful, even if these are characters stuck in stasis. But as a thriller it’s serviceable and enjoyable but otherwise unremarkable.
I have to admit Angela’s story got the shortest shrift. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t fully into the book at the beginning, but I felt her story got the least time and exploration, which is an odd choice given the unique relationship between mother and daughter. ↩