Tim Johnston’s second novel, “The Current,” delivers a riveting mystery surrounding grief and murder wrapped in a tight package of character and prose. Johnston builds a memorable cast of characters around a poignant case, full of heart.
Aubrey Sutter, a student at a Southern college, borrows money from her ex-roommate, Caroline, to buy a bus ticket to Minnesota to visit her dying father. Caroline decides to accompany her, and together they journey into Minnesota’s unforgiving chill. Miles away from Aubrey’s home, their car spirals into an icy river. Aubrey is found alive, frozen and fragile. Caroline, dead. Their plunge was no odd chance, and Aubrey finds herself drawn into a decades-old crime — the unsolved murder of a girl who died in the same river. Just as the river’s current carried Aubrey to shore, she’s tugged deeper into the mystery. Her injury opens old wounds, ones that her small Minnesota town never truly recovered from. She seeks the truth, driven by a force as consuming as the water itself.
Johnston’s writing soars. He alternates between several narrators over the 10 years since the first murder. Though initially jarring, and occasionally difficult to follow, the rotating perspectives become the defining element of “The Current.” Johnston’s prose is distinctive, as the style noticeably shifts between narrators. The characters’ thoughts comprise the bulk of the text. Johnston develops his cast more thoroughly than a more conventional mystery, allowing the emotions of his characters to bleed through the page. The ache of loss, hurt and grief overwhelm the story, matched only by an equal wish for justice. But the book doesn’t pursue an objective solution to the mystery. Rather, it meditates upon closure and justice without offering any resolution. The story begs for emotional release, one that the characters must determine on their own. “The Current”’s morality is never black and white.
Still, Johnston’s writing is not solely character-focused. The novel’s tone is consistent, and the Minnesota town feels tangible, come novel’s end. Johnston quickly familiarizes you with his characters, and you want to see them succeed. Every turn of the plot is tight and demands attention. But the same coldness that characterizes the town, on occasion, limits Johnston’s writing. He shies away from especially intense moments, in a way that both intensifies the atmosphere and distances readers from his characters. Maybe this speaks to the quality of his characters: you want more of them.
The story opens and closes in uncertainty, much of which is presented through the lens of womanhood and familial relationships. The dynamics are also frequently oppositional. Johnston’s division between men and women is handled with a light touch, but a tension is still prevalent throughout the book, for better or worse. The story’s driving force is the relationship between Aubrey, Caroline and the girl that died 10 years before their drive to Minnesota. Johnston’s characters broach this the only way they can: in their doubt, their own desire.
“The Current” is about a fight for closure, a fight that the characters assume as individuals. It won’t give readers absolute answers. But they will want to see Aubrey, her father and her community succeed.