The Rocky Mountains, with their mysterious and terrible beauty, are the perfect backdrop for this literary thriller. The Courtland’s already fractured lives shatter when a routine morning run turns into a dizzying descent into the terrifying unknown: their teenage son is in the hospital, their teenage daughter is missing—abducted.
What makes a thriller literary (other than the publisher saying so)? The language. Johnston carves the Rockies with words: he mirrors the external and internal landscapes of his characters, and he mostly finds the balance between action and prose.
The narrative is stylized, told in alternating perspectives but always in the third person. Readers’ unconscious sense of on omniscient narrator underscores themes of fate, identity and the value of human life. The separate narratives of Sean, Caitlin, Grant and Angela Courtland are complex—their lives before and after; the ways the horrors of before are sweeter to cling to than the smiles of the after. The richness of the back stories and the ways they ripple through the hunt for Caitlin elevate “Descent” above a “beach read” thriller.
Sean is damaged physically and psychologically on the mountain that morning, and is referred to as “the boy” in the narrative after Caitlin’s disappearance. This emphasizes his character’s loss of identity and disconnect from the real world. He drifts, smoking and drinking too much. Readers empathize with Sean, despite his bad choices, because “Dudley” (Caitlin’s nickname for Sean) is always under the surface of the attitude and a smoker’s cough.
The frayed marriage of Angela and Grant Courtland also adds depth to the story, elements of realistic domesticity that break readers’ hearts and make the Courtlands feel supremely real. Grant’s decision to stay in the Rockies, living on the sheriff’s father’s ranch, after Caitlin’s disappearance brings a desolate landscape and wider cast of characters into play as well. There are many elements in this story that stand alone, even without Caitlin. There is a whole world here, not just the hint of one with a mystery holding everything in place.
This is a mystery with a stunning ending, but more than that, this is a story about fate, redemption, and survival.
“And everything that had happened did not have to happen but could be altered by some simple act, by some slightest change in the unfolding of the day…and the world would not miss it, the world would not care if these two young people slipped away and lived that other life instead.”
This is a well written, well paced book with characters we feel like we know and landscapes that leap off the page. The stylized narration, transitioning between voices and points in time, is not always clear. However, moments of confusion emphasize the experiences of the characters. If, at times, Johnston seems to be on a narrative tangent, he pulls everything together in the end (maybe too neatly).