Thank You to Random House Publishing Group- Ballantine Books for providing me with an advanced copy of Dan Chaon’s Novel, Ill Will, in exchange for an honest review.
PLOT– In the 1980’s, Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle were brutally murdered, and his older adopted brother, a troubled teen named Rusty, was convicted of the crime. Twelve year old Dustin and his teenage cousin, Kate, were key witnesses at Rusty’s trial. They fed into the satan worship hysteria that was popular in the 80’s, explaining how Rusty murdered rabbits during satanic rituals, and how he had involved Kate and Dustin.
Thirty years later, new evidence has exonerated Rusty and he is finally freed from jail. Aiding the fight for Rusty’s innocence, is Kate’s twin sister, Wave, who is estranged from her family, due to her disagreements over how their had parents died and Rusty’s trial.
Dustin works as a therapist and his wife has just died from cancer. He is unsettled to learn that Rusty is out of prison and refuses contact with his brother. Dustin is struggling to cope with his grief, and can’t connect with his two college aged sons, Dennis, who lives on campus, and Aaron, living at home with a barely concealed heroin addiction. Dustin works with a client who is obsessed with a string of murders, college boys who are dumped in rivers, and soon, he joins his client in the obsession. Dustin’s paranoia increases, when Aaron’s best friend, nicknamed Rabbit, is murdered. Is this a coincidence or is Rabbit a victim of a serial killer? Signs point to a satanic ritual, could that be a factor? Is Rusty somehow involved? If Rusty didn’t kill his family, who did?
LIKE– This is my first novel by Chaon and I don’t often choose suspense-crime novels, but I thoroughly enjoyed Ill Will. The story is engaging and fast paced, a true page-turner. I never quite knew where the story was headed and I was genuinely surprised by the ending. Ill Will is creepy and disturbing, with rich imagery.
Speaking of imagery, the grimy settings are filled with sensory elements, rooting me in the story. For example, there is a former mortuary that has been turned into a drug house, with many of the elements of the former business still somewhat intact, like the elegant chairs that once held the grieving, are now draped with strung out teenagers. The series of small rooms in a mortuary, lend themselves to this unsettling experience of a horror house: as Aaron walks through to score, he mentions not knowing if a meth-head would jump out to stab him. The scene setting is rich throughout the story, with settings like the “stuck-in-another-era”, dusty farm house that the kids are sent to living with their grandmother after their parents die, or Rabbit’s house, unkept since he is a heroin addict and his single-mom is dying of cancer. Not a single location in Ill Will is pretty, which fits with this grim story. I felt unsettled throughout.
As with the settings, the characters are strong and unforgettable. Ill Will is told from different point-of-views, which works well, as it would have been difficult to spend an entire novel in Dustin’s paranoid mind or Aaron’s drug-fueled haze. I was most interested in the dynamic between Kate and Wave, inseparable twins in childhood, who are driven completely apart by their parent’s death and the trial. They have a similar reaction to the murders, an intense paranoia that has followed them into adulthood. However, rather than living off the grid like Wave, Kate’s sense of safety comes from living in an apartment in the middle of Hollywood Blvd, among people rather than the isolation of her sister. Neither can let this fear go, but the way they manage it, is opposite.
Chaon makes interesting narrative choices. Sometimes he jumps into first person, which upped the intensity in the moments he used it. He also plays with style, for example, dividing a page into two or three columns, and writing a different scenes to be read in parallel. I’ve never seen this done, but it was creative and served the story.
DISLIKE– The only negative and this is minor, is that I found myself unevenly interested in places, in these spots, I thought the pacing, which was generally rapid, slowed. Usually this happened during the Dustin narrative. Too much Dustin.
RECOMMEND– Yes, Ill Will is exciting and surprising. I’m definitely going to read Chaon’s other novels. I love finding these new-to-me-authors, that have already written several novels that I can immediately devour!