I found Descent well-written in terms of the actual prose–it is even lyrical at times–but the characters are relentlessly grim and worse, uninteresting. The story tends to plod and nearly everyone talks the same way, with the exact same–and I do mean exact same–speech affectations.
This is a simple story. A family vacationing in the mountains and already beset with issues like an unfaithful husband, faces the tragic loss of their 18 year old daughter after she is abducted by a man high up on an isolated mountain road while she is running. Her younger brother, accompanying her on bike, is struck by the vehicle of the man and left at the side of the road, injured and unable to help. The next few years play out with the husband and son looking for the daughter while the wife voluntarily checks herself into a hospital (and mostly out of the story) because she can’t bear it.
This novel could also be called Grim Men Who Smoke and Talk Like Parrots because these guys are completely devoid of humor (the occasional “jokes” they make are greeted with all the delight of witnessing a stillbirth), smoke relentlessly (but always thoughtfully blowing the smoke away from the non-smokers) and go about their daily lives with jaws set tight, all the better to clench their cigarettes.
The author abruptly chooses to refer to Sean, the aforementioned son, as simply “the boy” partway through the story and at first I thought it was meant to be a metaphor for how the guy was simply not growing into a man. Indeed, by the time he is 18 he is still making foolish, impulsive decisions that imperil his safety. But then he suddenly becomes Sean again in one scene, then reverts back to “the boy” and eventually to Sean yet again, so instead of a metaphor the whole thing ends up feeling more like a continuity error.
And while Johnston does write elegant, if occasionally overwrought, prose when describing the mountain scenery or the bleakness of a small town or a farm scoured by the weather, the dialogue spoken by nearly every character goes well beyond literary license (that whole “people don’t talk like this in real life, but real life talk in a novel would be awful” thing) to the point of absurdity and worse, utter predictability. It almost starts to feel like self-parody.
An example exchange might go like this:
“I thought of something about life.”
“You thought of something about life?”
They both drew deep on their cigarettes, exhaling into the wind.
“There’s four ways to skin a cat.”
“What are they?”
“What are the four ways to skin a cat?”
He lit a cigarette and blew the smoke off to the side. “I’m not sure, really. I thought I knew.”
“That horse looks like it’s going to buck that man.”
“That horse looks like it’s going to buck that man?”
“I think so. I don’t know.” He lit another cigarette, tossing the stub of the last one on top of the other two hundred piled around his feet.
Also, while the men are off finding themselves on long, rambling road trips and getting into fights and drinking and smoking, the women in the story–few as they are–exist only as props and scenery and victims. The mother checks out early and returns only at the end, to no real effect, just another prop for the men to work with. The daughter, Caitlin, has some actual spark, but is kidnapped early and subjected to misery thereafter (there’s a pun there for people who have read a certain King novel of the same name).
Overall, I found the whole thing a bit shapeless. I’m all for a good family drama (the suspense here is definitely not the draw) but the characters aren’t that compelling, mainly because of the incredibly small set of emotions each has. They are so detached and wooden–even when supposedly acting out in passion–that you come to expect woodpeckers to alight on their heads and start going to town.
I suppose if you find the idea of watching the slow-motion lives of incredibly dour men play out while some out-of-left-field set of coincidences actually lead to the story wrapping up, you might find interest in this. I can’t say I regret reading Descent, exactly, but it was a ponderous thing.