Ill Will by Dan Chaon

"What do you call it when someone can't tell the difference between what's real and what's not real?"

Dustin Tillman's life is in a crisis. The sudden death of his wife to cancer has left him with little control of his actions and emotions. This is particularly troubling because Dustin's work as a psychologist sees him guiding patients through their own difficult situations. Without the support and better judgement of his wife, Dustin has taken a particular interest in his patient Aqil.

Aqil is a former police officer who is obsessed with a series of drownings. In each instance, a young college-aged man disappears after a night of binge drinking. They turn up days later, drowned in local waterways. All of the investigative authorities have concluded that these deaths are accidental and unrelated, but Aqil has other theories. Blinded by his grief, Dustin willfully encourages Aqil to explore the case and even joins in the investigation. Is Dustin on the heels of a serial killer who has evaded any notice by the authorities, or is he simply supporting the delusions of a madman?

To add to Dustin's emotional stress, we learn that his childhood was no walk in the park. Along with his twin cousins, Dustin stumbled onto the bodies of his murdered parents, aunt, and uncle. We learn that his older adopted brother, Rusty, was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison. Dustin's descriptive testimony of  both Rusty's abuse toward him and participation in satanic rituals played the largest role in the conviction. Now, 30 years later, Dustin receives word that Rusty has been released and exonerated of all crimes. Dustin is sure that Rusty is guilty, but he can't recall specific details of that horrific night. Has he repressed these gruesome memories from his mind? Did all of the things he testified even happen?

"In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation."
                                                            - Sacheverell Sitwell, For Want of the Golden City

Ill Will is told from the shifting perspectives of various characters in the novel. While the central focus surrounds Dustin and his ironic descent into the kind of madness his profession fights against, the supporting characters are also allotted time to develop. By moving to different characters and times within the story, author Dan Chaon disorients the reader and creates a murkiness to his consistently suspenseful narrative. In a device that is as equally unique as it is satisfying, Chaon presents portions of the novel in columns. This allows different pieces of the story to unfold concurrently across perspective and time.

The subject matter is extremely grim. If you are looking for a "light" read, this may not be your cup of tea. Chaon writes of sexual and emotional abuse, drug addiction, and mental breakdown with a clarity that brings the characters to vivid realization. Despite the difficult subject matter, I was immediately sucked into the story and wasn't released until the very end. Ill Will works as both thriller and character study, shedding light upon dark situations. Chaon's dexterity with the material and inventive methods of presentation make Ill Will a disturbingly riveting read.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 10)

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