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Originally published Friday, January 9, 2015 at 5:03 AM

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‘Descent’: in the wake of a heartbreaking disappearance

Tim Johnston’s debut novel, “Descent,” is a gripping, nuanced look at a family, torn apart after their teenaged daughter disappears on a Colorado camping trip. Johnston appears Jan. 13 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.


Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Tim Johnston

The author will read from and sign “The Descent” at 7 p.m. Jan. 13 at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

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It’s every parent’s nightmare: A son or daughter disappears with no clues. In the aftermath of tragedy, the family shatters.

I had some trepidation about reading Tim Johnston’s debut adult novel, “Descent” (Algonquin, 384 pp., $25.95). I’m a dad, and I don’t need someone else imagining such a scenario for me. But I’m glad I stuck with it: “Descent” is fluent and big-hearted, both a gripping thriller and a carefully nuanced look at a heartbroken but hopeful family.

The Courtlands are pretty typical. The four — Grant, Angela, college-bound daughter Caitlin and younger brother Sean — are in the Colorado Rockies, vacationing from flat Wisconsin and awed by the mountains’ splendor.

One morning Caitlin, a cross-country star in high school, dons her running shoes and heads off on a deserted mountain road. Keeping Caitlin company on his bicycle is Sean, barely into his teens, unsure of himself and intimidated by his sister’s easy self-confidence.

Then it hits: a truck comes from nowhere and plows into Sean. He’s left lying by the side of the road with his leg at a very wrong angle. Caitlin can’t get a signal with her cellphone, and the seemingly sympathetic driver offers to take her down the mountain until she can call and summon help.

Seeing no alternative, she reluctantly agrees to leave her brother. And she never comes back.

The book is told from several points of view. Grant, the father, stays in Colorado, nursing hope and working as a carpenter while falling in with a tough old rancher and his no-good son. Over the next four years or so, he witnesses the residents of his new community (with a few exceptions) change from deeply understanding to — well, not indifferent, but maybe less sympathetic to his grief and daily self-recriminations.

Angela, the mother, returns to Wisconsin. Numbed and vulnerable, she tries to reclaim a shred of her old life as a teacher. Meanwhile Sean, hobbled by a badly damaged leg, abandons his family and drifts into a life of travel, odd jobs and occasional violence.

It’s giving nothing away to say that Caitlin is still alive, chained to the floor of a remote mountain cabin by that seemingly sympathetic driver. We see Caitlin’s constricted and terrifying world through her eyes, and we get glimpses of her courage and strength. (Author Johnston gives us no insight into what’s running through the captor’s head, preferring to leave us with our imaginations on that front.)

The book’s middle section sags slightly in places, and the descriptions of the Rockies’ beauty are sometimes overcooked. But the conclusion is riveting — a sudden intuition leads to acts of unexpected generosity and astonishing, resourceful bravery. In less capable hands than Johnston’s, this ending might seem contrived and implausible. Here, it feels just right.

Adam Woog’s column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.



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