Saturday, June 1, 2019

Review: The Current by Tim Johnston

I don't generally read literary suspense or thrillers but one of my favorite booksellers knows that I have a thing for books with water on the covers and pushed The Current on me based on that (and his enthusiasm for the novel, of course). More properly, this has ice on the cover (and I tend to gravitate to running water rather than solid water) but since it's in shades of blue (another weakness of mine), it totally counts for my cover catnip. That J. said it was a great read convinced me to overcome my usual cowardly feelings about the genre and give it a try. Luckily this was not the heart pounding, keep me up at night hiding from bad guys kind of suspense novel that some are. Johnston's newest novel is a tense, slow build of a story that will leave you horrified and angry at the myriad ways that justice has treated woman in the past and continues to treat them, even as it acknowledges important nuances and imperfections in the law and in public perception.

Audrey Sutter's father, a retired sheriff in Minnesota, is dying of cancer so she asks her friend Caroline for bus fare to go home to see him before it's too late. Instead, Caroline chooses to drive Audrey from their Southern college all the way north. In the middle of the night, just before they get to Minnesota, the girls stop for gas and Audrey is assaulted in the gas station bathroom. Caroline rescues her and they careen out of the lonely station back toward the highway but Caroline loses control of the car on ice and they come to a stop on the verge of a frozen river. Then headlights appear in the rear view and another car pushes them out onto the unstable ice and both girls end up in the freezing water. Audrey comes to in the hospital but Caroline drowns. This tragic death, and the slow investigation into the two boys who assaulted Audrey and their possible connection to the car that sent the girls into the river stirs up the memory of another girl who drowned in the same river ten years prior and whose murderer was never brought to justice.

These two terrible river plunges and drowning deaths ten years apart weave in and out of each other as the narrative moves forward. In a small town, the intermixed connections, close and loose of the people are reflected in the characters and their individual ties to each case. No one is left untouched by these crimes, not the innocent, not the guilty, and the grief and tragedy resonate through the town and the lives of the townspeople forever. Because of the multiple narrative focuses, the twining of the two investigations, and the interconnectedness of the characters, it can be confusing to the reader to try and figure out which year in time the story is in in any given chapter, making it a bit more muddled than is comfortable. For thriller fans, this is not so much a thriller as it is a heavily descriptive and intricately written, character driven story with an unsolved crime (possibly two) at its core. As the denouement approaches, the myriad sub plots, secrets, and unspoken, unacknowledged truths start to come together in a surprising pattern. Johnston has done a very good job laying out bits and pieces that lead the reader in one direction, before turning her in another equally plausible direction entirely until quite late in the novel. Readers who want to feel the penetrating chill of an icy river, the rising tension of a cerebral whodunit, and experience the suffering of those touched by senseless crime will find this a novel to sink into.

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