Kirkus Reviews QR Code
ILL WILL by Dan Chaon Kirkus Star


by Dan Chaon

Pub Date: March 7th, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-345-47604-3
Publisher: Ballantine

A dark genre-bending thriller that starts with a drowning but widens to encompass murder, cancer, drug addiction, and satanic ritual abuse.

Dustin is a Cleveland psychiatrist who’s having a rough, creepy year. His wife has died of cancer, and one of his patients is recruiting him to help investigate the drownings of young men that seem to match a pattern. And that’s just the stuff he’s aware of. Dustin doesn’t know that his youngest son, 18-year-old Aaron, is developing a heroin habit in the wake of his mom’s death. Nor does he know that Aaron has been talking with Dustin’s adopted brother, Rusty, who was convicted for killing Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle nearly 30 years earlier. Rusty was sent to prison based on circumstantial evidence and Dustin’s supposedly repressed memories of witnessing a satanic cult ritual that provoked the massacre. But that devil-made-me-do-it stuff has been debunked, DNA evidence has exonerated Rusty, and Dustin, we learn, was and remains easily persuaded that untrue things are true. Chaon (Stay Awake, 2012, etc.) has a good time with all this bad news, skillfully exploring our unwitting capacity for self-delusion and self-destructive behavior. He does it through conventional novelistic detail (Aaron’s slide into addiction is particularly harrowing) and psychological insight, unspooling Dustin’s own issues through flashbacks and present-day anxiety. But Chaon also plays with form, at one point splitting Aaron’s narrative into first-, second-, and third-person points of view running alongside each other in columns, the better to suggest disconnection from oneself. But this kind of rhetorical somersaulting doesn’t interfere with the main narrative, and though the novel at times feels baggy, especially the present-day serial-killer plot, overall Chaon has mastered multiple psychologically complex and often fearsome characters.

A shadowy narrative that’s carried well by the author’s command and insight.