Book review: Ill Will

I recently read Dan Chaon’s 2017 thriller, Ill Will. This is my first book by this author, which reinforces my resolve to ignore online reviews. Can it be that they’re all fake?

These days I’ve replaced my Kindle Oasis with a Kobo Libre 2. I reviewed the Kindle and I’ll provide a review of the Kobo for those interested in e-readers.

The novel is told in the voices of several protagonists. The central figure is a psychologist working in Cleveland. One reason I got the book is that it is set in locations familiar to me. At the outset of the novel Dustin, the psychologist, begins working with a Cleveland cop who is on extended leave. The cop is convinced that a series of seemingly unrelated drownings in Ohio are connected. The victims are all college-age men of good health whose bodies are found sometime after they disappear.

While we follow this thread, we learn that Dustin’s parents and aunt and uncle were murdered in their home when Dustin was 13. Dustin’s adopted older brother was convicted of the crime. Soon after the novel opens, Dustin learns that the convicted killer has been exonerated and released from prison after 29 years.

While these two threads are spun, we learn that the cop selected Dustin as his psychologist because of his experience as a 13-year old. The cop believes that horrific experience equips Dustin to help him sift fact from fiction regarding the drownings.

And that is the heart of the novel–sifting fact from fiction; fantasy from reality. The author attempts to weave a tapestry of two timelines, two crimes, and several voices into a seamless whole without much success.

Chaon is a competent, professional writer. This isn’t another Kindle Unlimited author learning the craft on the job. He’s capable of tense and taunt passages heightened with original observations. He convincingly sets the psychological stage where the protagonists’ truths differ widely from one anothers. As the author wants us to, we begin to question whose version of events is accurate. What really happened?

And to give the author his due, I was surprised by the ending.

While there are things to admire here, the negatives far outweigh the positives. First, the author experiments with simultaneous narratives, sometime two or even three parallel columns on the same page. Chaon’s normal readers won’t be able to grasp multiple voices without repeated whippings?

Second, this novel lacks a moral compass. In a world where only random violence is real, there is no agency and without agency there is no motive. As with Perdido Street Station, the author substitutes scene setting and mood evoking for plot. We get an unwavering mood of despair, gloom, and revulsion. No character development whatsoever. In fact, this novel reminds me of Roman Polanski’s study of depression and decay, Repulsion.

Based on this novel, Chaon is on my avoid list.

Dan Chaon

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