Tim Johnston opens his book with a Hemingway quote: “He whispered this last so low that it was inaudible to anyone who did not love you.” It’s short. Poignant. Tinged with melancholy. The book is the same way. Slow and sure. If you mouth the quote, you almost want to elongate each vowel, to taste each word. Each word is like a snowflake, intricate. Each word you want to inspect.
The cover of “The Current” features big, blocky letters, encompassing a third of the space of the dark background and cracked with ice. It gives off the impression that “The Current” is an eerie book. Even the title itself has a shadow of something malignant — The Current. The simplicity has ominous connotations. The novel itself, however, never delivers on the cover’s implications. It moves at a snail’s pace for over half of the book.
The book is told in five parts, but it feels more like three. The first part reads like a chapter in its brevity (just over 20 pages). It concludes with the mysterious death of a girl in the river, an event then used as a springboard to investigate an eerily similar death of another girl ten years back. We’re offered a glimpse of Caroline’s perspective, the more recent of the two young women to plunge into the icy, black river. We’re able to watch her relationship blossom with Audrey, an ex-roommate, through relatable college scenes and rich prose. It culminates with an infraction between a Caroline and a professor that rings heavy under the recent #MeToo movement. The first part, exactly 23 pages, of Caroline and Audrey’s impromptu decision to visit Audrey’s father in small-town Minnesota deceptively sets up the novel to be a fast-paced thriller that never delivers. I kept waiting — 100, 200 pages in — to return to that initial heart-elevating rush.
Instead, in part two, I’m yanked out of my exhilaration, the gnawing curiosity of the young woman’s death — was it murder? — and sped back into the past. The second part is the story of the small Minnesota town. Its structure is confusing. A quarter of the way through, I realized the plot was alternating between past and present. The recent death of one of the aforementioned college girls revives memories of another girl’s mysterious death 10 years earlier. The continual change in perspective, both in time and characters, makes it hard to immerse into the book completely. It’s a chore to pick the “The Current” up again after I’ve set it down, knowing that I have to acquaint myself with new characters and a new mystery.
The story is redeemed with lovely writing like, “I was underwater looking up at them from below. Like everyone was upside down. The sky, the water. Everything.” The repetition and sparse sentences have a rhythmic quality, mirroring the Hemingway quote in the opening. The lyrical prose makes it hard not to get attached to each character, to the small town — their stories and their lives and the difference that ten years make.
The third part attempts to tie the two deaths together. Despite the jarring difference between them, there’s a thread of coalescence that makes for a satisfying ending. It acts as an award for the readers that paid close attention from the start.
The book does not stand on its own as a thriller — the pacing is too slow, and the novel is stretched out unnecessarily to ever binge. Still, “The Current” differentiates itself from other suspenseful thrillers exactly because of that. Each character, however minor, plays a pivotal role in the small town. You can’t help but mourn the tragedy of another young girl 10 years before. You can’t help but cheer the characters on, reading the last few lines and wishing that everything will be OK.