“What do you call it when someone can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not real?”
— Dan Chaon, Ill Will
Get ready for one of the most infuriating thrillers this year as Ill Will will come tugging at every single inch of your patience. Focused around the nebulous and erratic nature of memories, as well as the sensational Satanic cult phenomenon in the 1980s, Dan Chaon delivers two mysteries from two different times and their inevitable connection that will propel readers down a rocky and ruthless road of self-deception and self-destruction. Dustin Tillman is the main protagonist of this story; a middle-age psychologist who thrives in the art of hypnosis. It’s upon hearing the news about the prison release of his adopted brother that his life is suddenly pushed to the edge. Young, his adopted brother Rusty received a life sentence for the murder of Dustin’s parents, uncle and aunt. His release through the Innocence Project reopens old wounds and dips Dustin’s whole life into a sea of confusion. Around the same time, one of Dustin’s patient, Aqil Ozorowski, an ex-police officer, investigates the drowning of collegiate boys over the past couple of years and presents a wild theory that will initially seem impossible, only to later drag Dustin onto an irresistible path in search for the truth.
The premise behind this story is sound and solid, but the execution was a total miss. Just imagine about all the potential ideas you could utilize and squeeze into this story based on its blurb alone. Ill Will hovers over two sets of events. The first one pertains to the massacre that took place when Dustin Tillman was a young, innocent and gullible boy back in the early 1980s. This narrative is told in the third person and gives us insight on all the members of the Tillman family (from brothers to cousins). If there was anything satisfying about Ill Will, I’d definitely point my finger to the dark and hair-raising past of the Tillman’s. The things that happen during those days were truly disturbing, as you slowly discover that every single individual had done something questionable and taboo. It is through this retelling of the past that you truly get to know the personalities of every character. Although everything leads up to the massacre, it is the ambiguous nature of this story that leaves a huge gap in our comprehension and ultimately stimulates a deep desire to find out the truth.
The second event is around Dustin Tillman in the early 2010s when he hears about his brother’s innocence, his prison release, as well as his patient’s crazy yet tantalizing theory behind several drownings in the past year. Dustin is now a completely different man who embodies normal in every way possible. The narrative is however told in the first person when it comes down to Dustin, but Dan Chaon also incorporates another character’s point of view, also in the first person, into the story: Dustin’s drug-addict son Aaron. Swapping between these three different narratives throughout the whole story felt incredibly tumultuous and even within each section, scenes would jump from one place to another in a completely oblivious and unconcerned manner. While at times Dan Chaon does a formidable job at creating a disconcerting and hazy atmosphere, the writing fails to hold onto my attention and make its a huge challenge to be able to embrace the novelty in the style. However, I’ll definitely give him credit in making sure to convey the importance of different point of views in our understanding of events as one man’s truth is never the same as another man’s truth.
Speaking of which, the writing is what really killed everything. This was one of the messiest writing styles that I’ve ever encountered so far. Ill Will blends into the story an unconventional word formatting and spacing. Imagine blank spaces between sentences and in the most unusual places ever. Also, imagine random chapters with columns of text that can only be truly understood if you go through each column (over a couple of pages) and then come back to read the next column. While you could also try and read the columns one after the other, page by page, confusion is sure to ensue. There are also times were sentences would be aligned right, and at other times where there’s no attempt to apply justify the text. If you thought this was bad, let me tell you about the sentence construction and punctuation at times. Oh, Dan Chaon really was ballsy to play with this as this might have been the most devastating element to my reading experience. Throughout the story you’d get sentences that ended halfway before completion, without any punctuation to help attenuate the sudden ruptures. I tried really hard to understand the purpose behind this style, but nothing logical ever came to mind. I did have a feeling that the author attempted to give an in-story explanation to the style at the end of the book, but after over 450 pages of this nonsense, nothing could have been said to make me appreciate this wild “art”.
Ill Will is a chilling psychological thriller that sadly missed its mark. It definitely had immense potential but the style and direction led the overall story into a huge mess that never truly managed to maintain its intrigue. The conclusion would have been powerful if the execution was different, as it remains true to its core ideas and delivers an unsettling touch to the story. The relentless assault of past events on the modern day as well as its constant grip on our every day life is shockingly exposed through the life of Dustin Tillman. How his life was impacted at a young age and how he learned to repress his memories remains fascinating, but its how he quickly realizes how he was living a life filled with lies and an inability to see through them is what drives this story forward. As much as I wanted to enjoy this ride, Dan Chaon’s writing style and unorthodox execution took too much away from the ideas that were set on the table. Its in the potential of this story that lies its true value, but everything else strangles the life out of this book.
THANK YOU TO PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE FOR SENDING ME AN ADVANCE COPY FOR REVIEW!
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MY OVERALL RATING: ★★☆☆☆/