4:52 A. M. That’s what time I finished Dan Chaon’s Ill Will and turned out the light to try to sleep. Ill Will is disconcerting, an exploration of memory and its unreliability, family and its unreliability, and narrative and its unreliability. On the surface, it’s the story of Dustin, a psychologist whose parents were murdered thirty years ago. Just as Dustin learns that his older foster brother Rusty, who has served thirty years in prison for murdering their parents, aunt, and uncle, has been freed by The Innocence Project, his wife Jill tells him she is dying. Meanwhile, a patient named Aqil is pushing a conspiracy theory that several area drownings over the past decade are really the work of a serial killer, perhaps even a cult of killers.
When his parents were murdered long ago, thirteen year-old Dustin and his cousin, Kate, testified against Rusty. They described satanic rituals he performed, tying him to the Satanic Ritual Panic that engulfed America in the past. Kate’s sister was there that night, too, but did not testify and rejected Dustin and Kate’s narrative. Rusty wants to talk it out, but when Dustin refuses to return his calls, he begins calling Aaron, Dustin’s youngest son. Aaron, reeling at the loss of his mother is sinking into heroin addiction and hanging with some very doubtful characters.
When Jill dies, Dustin finds distraction in Aqil’s conspiracy, joining him in interviewing the family and friends of some of the victims and looking for a missing, suspected next victim. Aqil is quite the unreliable and sketchy character himself, but Dustin’s suspicions and skepticism fade. After all, if he were not investigating this with urgency, then he would be alone and idle and mourning his wife. It is so much easier to seek a satanic cult than face his grief.
Ill Will is going to stay with you for a while if you read it. It does not present a straightforward narrative though most of your questions will be answered. Central questions, though, will remain. What really happened thirty years ago? Did Dustin and Kate lie out of malice or because they believed it was true? Perhaps their narrative was true but the inference based on the narrative was wrong. Who is telling the truth?
Chaon experiments with narrative, not just with telling multiple narrators in the past and present in the first, second, and third person. He’s got unfinished sentences, fragments, disjointed and broken narratives. There’s a section of side by side narratives that start and end, sometimes in mid-sentence, without connecting, but still moving us forward, revealing more and more of the story. We come to know a lot, but with uncertainty.
If you like your mysteries tied up with a neat bow, the dead buried, the killer arrested, and every question answered, Ill Will is going to frustrate you. If uncertainty intrigues and fascinates you, Ill Will will satisfy. No matter what kind of reader you are, Ill Will will keep you up at night.
Ill Will will be released on March 7th. I received an advance e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.