And boy, was it worth it.
Descent is the story of the Courtland family - husband Grant, wife Angela, and children Caitlin and Sean - who are in the Rocky Mountains for a last family vacation before Caitlin leaves for college. Caitlin is a championship runner, and early one morning she goes for a long run in the mountain with Sean trailing on his bike. Shortly afterwards, Grant gets a call that Sean has been found injured on the side of the road. Caitlin is nowhere to be found. Immediately the search party goes out, but she is gone.
Caitlin's disappearance tears in to the fabric of the family in countless ways. Grant refuses to leave Colorado, and eventually, the sheriff installs him in the guest house on his father's ranch, although the reader is never quite sure whether Grant is supposed to be caring for the invalid father, or whether the father is supposed to be keeping an eye on Grant. After recovering from his injuries, Sean leaves school and winds up hitchhiking back and forth across the country, going dark for months before surfacing again to his father, and then taking off again. And Angela, back home at her sister's while Grant remains in California, lets go of reality a little bit more every day.
Johnston's writing is tense and powerful, both in the heart-racing moments and in the quiet afterwards of the destruction that gets played out over and over again on the page, and more than once I found myself letting out a breath I didn't know I was holding. The word gut-wrenching can be used to describe more than a handful of scenes, and it would have been easy to overdo that, but Johnston plays it exactly perfectly, This is a raw and emotional novel. If I have one quibble, it's this: SPOILER - I didn't love the way he redeemed the no-good brother of the sheriff, but I'm also not sure what else he could have done with those scenes.
“One speck of difference in the far green sameness and he would stare so hard his vision would slur and his heart would surge and he would have to force himself to look away—Daddy, she’d said—and he would take his skull in his hands and clench his teeth until he felt the roots giving way and the world would pitch and he would groan like some aggrieved beast and believe he would retch up his guts, organs and entrails and heart and all, all of it wet and gray and steaming at his feet and go ahead, he would say into this blackness, go ahead god damn you.”
Read this. But don't go running in the mountains any time soon.