Ill Will by Dan Chaon

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“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.

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    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”.

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    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!

Are you interested in Ill Will?
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MY OVERALL RATING: ★★☆☆☆/

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44 thoughts on “Ill Will by Dan Chaon

    • Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

      For real. It had my head leaning forward, right arm raised, hand twisted outwards, and me thinking “What the…” far too many times. Characters would even start thinking really random thoughts here and then as if they were asked to do some pure associative thoughts, just for kicks. Bummer.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. fictionbookdude says:

    Hey Lashaan! I have heard about this book months back and what first intrigued me was the premise of it – a psychologist who’s past suddenly resurfaces with his brothers prison release. I somehow looked past it and ignored it but reading this review made me sort of glad I didn’t pick it up. Maybe at that time I would’ve enjoyed it (because it all depends on the reader) but it’s nice to read a great and objective review of the book. I like how you analysed certain parts of it and even though you didn’t like the book you still wrote a review which isn’t bashing the book but rather voicing your own thoughts of the same. I’m sorry that this one didn’t work out for you – hopefully next read will! Have a nice evening!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

      Hey, hey Nikola! 🙂 I too had heard of this book months ago and was immensely intrigued. But then I saw a fellow blogger have issues with it and wasn’t in a rush anymore to read it. Now that I did, I can pretty much say that it was too much of a frustrating read for me to say I enjoyed it, even with all the potential it had! I did want to highlight the good things about it, even if the bad things won the war. Cause.. you know.. maybe it was just me and this book and its style would be better appreciated by other intrigued readers. Maybe if you ever give it a shot you’ll end up adoring it for what it makes you feel throughout the whole book and what not! Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words man. I appreciate it. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Beth (Reading Every Night) says:

    Oh this sounded like a really interesting book, and the first quote you featured from the story definitely had me intrigued about what it was about. Unfortunately it sounds like everything else wasn’t as well put together. It’s a shame because it seems like the potential was there for Ill Will to be an amazing story, and completely unique as well. I’m sorry this was wasn’t a good read for you Lashaan, still great review! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

      I know right? It really does everything to hook you and make you want to give it a shot, but I just felt like the execution was a flop. It definitely had a lot of potential, but in the end, the experience was way too underwhelming because of the style. Maybe other readers will enjoy this more than I did, who knows. After all, there are some 5 star reviews for this book out there! 😀 Thank you for reading Beth!! Always enjoy hearing your thoughts on it all. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Dani @ Perspective of a Writer says:

    The backhistory part sounds incredible, but it didn’t overcome all the stylistic parts…lol. He shouldn’t have crammed the two ideas together. Really I was drawn to the story when you stated how you got to know this whole family and the things they had done. No column craziness needed. This is too sad and disappointing! Such a great review though Lashaan, I love it when I feel like I get a glimpse of a book yet haven’t even read it… better luck on your next book!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

      I know! If this book was solely about the family massacre and all that satanic hysteria, with a whodunit twist, this book would’ve been GENIUS. All that formatting and “column craziness” (I couldn’t have said it any better) only felt like they were taking away all the interesting part of this book. Thank you so much for the kind words though!! I’m so glad you feel like you’ve learned so much without having read the book at all. That’s probably one of the best compliment you can get for a spoiler-free review! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Miracle Milli Reads says:

    Hey!

    Nice blog (: I just started mine up and was looking for a few relative friends in the book world! I have a Booktube channel too. Also, There is a giveaway currently going on and I will be posting more as soon as I finish editing a few videos.

    Thanks and I hop you like my blog! :*

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Yvo says:

    Oh shoot! The premise of this one sounded really interesting, so it’s too bad the execution didn’t live up to expectations… But with a messy writing style, any story would be hard to enjoy. Great review though!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

      With a premise like this, I feel like a lot of people would be intrigued enough to try it, but man… the unconventional style is a pain. Hopefully others will find more joy in it than I did! Thank you so much for the kind words though, I really appreciate you stopping by! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. LizScanlon says:

    Brilliant review, Lashaan! Pity the book missed its mark even though, like everyone else, I too have to say that the premise sounds pretty darn good… The ‘wild art’ comment makes perfect sense after you point out all the glaring ‘flaws’ but I have to say I am so totally interested on giving this beautiful mess a go 😀 I am a sucker for punishment 😀 That reminds me, I need to renew my library card so I can go hunt all sorts of oddities out…

    I recall reading a book that didn’t have any punctuation and POVs, scenes, settings switched around paragraph after paragraph and it was just- wth is going on?! I did get used to it in the end, but it sounds like Ill Will goes an extra mile on that execution!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

      Thank you so much Liz! Honestly, I feel like there might be a way to appreciate this a bit more than I did. I wouldn’t forbid you to read this; it wasn’t THAT bad. Thing is, all that column stuff, spacing, punctuation and mid-sentence ruptures aren’t consistant throughout the book, and that’s probably why it bothered me the most. Whenever it appeared it just felt absolutely random, making it feel more like poor editing than…art. hahahah I’d be pretty curious to hear your thoughts on this though. So far, I only know one person in the blogosphere who’s read this and ended up having similar issues with it.

      The book you speak of sounds helllaa fun though. I mean, when there’s a tangible “purpose” to all that, I can definitely find myself enjoying it. I hear people comparing Ill Will to House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (heard of it?). You should TOTALLY try hunting that one that and just leaf through it to see how INTENSE that word formatting is in there. But compared to Ill Will? House of Leaves is a God. 😛 Although I haven’t read it, I know it’s highly praised and definitely plan on trying it out some day!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

      I know, right? I actually didn’t know about the whole.. odd formatting, spacing and punctuation stuff till it was too late to turn back. I just wish it felt “purposeful” for me to at least admire it. While reading… it just felt like it was really bad editing with loads of printing issues. Then again, some people enjoyed this a lot, so who knows? 😀

      Liked by 1 person

        • Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

          Oh, I’ve heard about that book, but I didn’t know about that writing style though. I didn’t really plan on reading it though, but I’ll definitely keep that in mind. Some people compared Ill Will to House of Leaves, but the similarities were so… small.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Books, Vertigo and Tea says:

    I do not think I have to explain to you why my initial thoughts were yes! This is a book for me (I mean satanic cults.. murder? Please!). Ah, but then I read the remainder of the review and my heart dropped with complete and utter disappointment.

    This sounds so “all over the place” and muddled. I think I would be left more frustrated than anything so shelving the idea for now.

    Awesome review 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

      This is why I had a craving for a good cult-related story! Ill Will did not fill up my tummy, no, no, not at all! 😛 I would have definitely recommended it to you if I didn’t end up.. so irritated by it. There’s some really nice parts throughout the book for sure, but man.. the overall experience was not a very.. good one. Maybe some day, if you run into it, you should definitely give it a shot (read the first chapter or something) just to get a feel. Who knows, maybe it’ll be surprisingly amazing for you! 😀 Thank you so much for reading Danielle!!!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. juliannebailey says:

    It sounds like the author has tried to copy the writing style of people like Mark Z. Danielewski in ‘House of Leaves’. When done well it’s a very creative way to challenge a reader, but your depiction does make the novel sound rather frantic and confusing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

      That is exactly what some of the “bigger” reviewers compare it too! But maaaan, although I haven’t read House of Leaves yet, I’m pretty sure this is a mediocre job in trying to reproduce that style. It never felt right or even pertinent. It simply never enhanced my reading experience in any way, shape or form. I know that books like Illuminae (by Kaufman and Kristoff) bring something completely creative and amazing by tackling an unconventional writing style/format, but what I got from Ill Will… never felt right. Maybe someday I’ll run into someone who can justify the intent behind the style in a way that would make me reconsider the “originality” or this book, but for now.. it just felt like a real letdown! Thank you so much for reading though, I really appreciate it Jules! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Sophie @ Blame Chocolate says:

    While I can appreciate some authors going to great lengths to present an original and interesting format, there’s no point to it if the readers cannot understand it or even enjoy the story solely because of it. Experimenting is fine, but not if it nullifies the reading experience altogether.
    It’s a shame, really, when a book has so much potential and falls so short!
    I can only imagine how frustrating reading this might have been for you. It was not even the good kind of expectant confusion, it was just pure bewilderment… Ugh.
    Anyway, amazing review as always Lashaan! I hope you get to read a better thriller soon 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

      I completely agree with ya, Sophie! I was also unaware, before starting the book, about this peculiar experimentation. That still however doesn’t justify my inability to appreciate since the surprise should then lead to curiosity and then admiration.. to some extent, even without warning. There are however a bunch of people out there who did enjoy this thoroughly though. I’d honestly would love to hear the thoughts of more people who enjoy psychological thrillers on this book. Then again, I won’t be the one recommending the read to them! 😛
      Thank you again for reading and for your kind words Sophie! I appreciate it! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  10. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    hehehe oh my goodness, even if this was infuriating to read, your review was sheer awesomeness!! Loved your throwaway remarks: “everything else strangles the life out of this book”. haha it sounds like this book was a total killer!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

      Hahahah, couldn’t have said it any better! I had to surprise everyone just like how I was surprised by how… disappointing… this turned out to be! So much promise, so little return! Thank you so much for the kind words, Donna! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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