Book Review: Ill Will by Dan Chaon

ill-will

Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Thirty years ago, Dustin’s aunt, uncle, mother, and father were brutally murdered. His testimony helped to put his adopted older brother, Rusty, in prison for the crime. Now, Rusty is being released from prison, his innocence proven by DNA evidence. But if Rusty didn’t commit the murders, then who did?

In the meantime, it appears that a serial killer might be operating in northern Ohio. Dustin, now a psychologist in Cleveland, becomes obsessed with a series of suspicious deaths after one of his patients brings up his own investigation. As Dustin and his family are pulled apart by both the events of thirty years ago and today, the nature of right and wrong, sanity and insanity becomes more and more muddled.

This was a fascinating book, though at times I found it difficult to read. The story, which weaves between past events and the present day, is mainly from the point of view of Dustin himself, and his adult son, Aaron. The story begins with Dustin learning of Rusty’s release from prison. This knowledge, and the anticipation of retribution from his adopted brother, start off a chain of events leading Dustin down a rabbit hole of obsession. Aaron, dealing with drug addiction, is nearly as unreliable a narrator as Dustin.

As the two men move through the story, the narrative literally fragments, some pages having several competing point-of-views for the same people of the same event. Thoughts and sentences are often left unfinished, as minds drift and alternative thoughts impose themselves upon the narrative. Ill Will explores the fragility of self and the unreliability of perception and memory.

I enjoyed this book. It is a uniquely written thriller, and the plot twists and turns and doubles back on itself often enough to confound the reader. In places, the formatting, especially with the competing narratives, can make the book hard to follow. To me, the book is reminiscent of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, a psychological thriller which also used atypical formatting to advance the plot. And, like House of Leaves, I strongly suspect that this is a book you will either love or hate.

I would recommend this book to someone who likes darker psychological thrillers, but not to anyone who requires concrete endings or neatly tied loose ends. In that regard, Ill Will is a lot like the recently published Universal Harvester by John Darnielle (my review can be read here) in that it is a creepy book which will mess with your head, and the ending will leave you with nearly as many questions as answers. In sum, I enjoyed this book quite a bit, but it is certainly not for everyone. If you enjoyed either of the two books previously mentioned, then I strongly recommend reading Ill Will.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Ill Will will be available for purchase on March 7th, 2017.

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