Tim Johnston
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Buy *Descent* by Tim Johnstononline

Tim Johnston
Algonquin Books
384 pages
January 2015
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Emotionally complex, haunted by an overwhelming sense of grief, Johnstonís treatment of a family tragedy reaches deep into the psyches of those most intimately involved, especially a younger brother who bears the burden of a shared encounter with unanticipated danger. After traveling from the flat plains of Wisconsin to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Caitlin, an eighteen-year-old runner, takes off with fifteen-year-old Sean to take on the mountain terrain. Sean follows along on his bike. Meanwhile, Angela and Grant Courtland, their marriage too often bruised, find an opportunity to reconnect in the quiet motel room while their children are gone.

What happens during that mountain run will change the future of a family taking a short vacation before Caitlin goes off to college in the fall, a synchronicity of misadventures that leaves Sean felled by an accident and Caitlin faced with a decision whether to go for help or remain behind with her injured sibling. In her anxiety, Caitlin makes an impulsive choice, one that reverberates long after Sean has been rescued and taken to a hospital. Caitlin vanishes without a trace.

Johnston deftly explores the aftermath of such an event, a family left in limbo, torn between staying to search and taking their son home to recover from an injury that leaves him with a limp. All bear the indelible scar of incomprehensible loss, the daughter left behind. As Caitlinís father, Grant cannot give up his search, staying in the area with the father of the sheriff. Angela finds it impossible to comprehend this most terrible of blows and turns inward, often unable to cope with lifeís simplest demands. The promise of deathís oblivion is seductive. And, as time passes, the guilt-ridden brother who could not save his beloved older sister is no longer a boy but a young man trying to find his place in a world that has changed. He wanders the country, his sisterís voice a companion in his lonely wanderings.

The author is at home in the wilderness, both its beauty and extremes. He lends the terrain the weight of character, a place where evil thrives in natureís ready camouflage, where a man rediscovers the son he has nearly lost, a landscape demanding more of those who breach its boundaries. Sympathetic to Sean and Grantís struggles, Johnstonís plot speaks the language of men, exploring the dark heart of personal loss, the need for revenge and forgiveness, the opportunity to become more than a manís small opinion of himself, to regain a tattered faith in the vagaries of the world. The supporting characters are finely drawn, both their strengths and weaknesses affecting Grant and Seanís reactions to a world that has shifted from its axis. One man may be weak, one evil, yet another indifferent to the desperation of a man in search of a daughter.

Angela suffers alone, clinging to the precious memories hidden in the rooms of childhood, trapped in a limbo where the present doesnít exist, a woman unavailable to a husband and son grappling with emotions they cannot bear. The center has come unglued, more fragile than anyone realized, each grown careless in the pursuit of their own dreams and disappointments. Caitlin, a star in the firmament of the sky, charts her own brave path from despair to hope, the touchstone for those left behind. The mountain that has promised nothing releases its captives to make what they might of a world still alive with promise, albeit tempered with a more profound understanding of what really matters. Domestic drama or wilderness adventure, Descent plumbs the depths of the human heart in unexpected adversity, exposing the vulnerability of man at the mercy of fate, the exceptional courage of the brave and the gratitude of those given a reprieve.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2015

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