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Ill Will by Dan Chaon ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  480

Published:  March 7, 2017

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

 

Unique, dark, suspenseful psychological thriller that cycles back and forth in time focusing on 2 separate sets of murders.  In the 1970s, Dustin’s parents and aunt and uncle were brutally murdered while he and his cousins slept in a trailer in the driveway.  It was his and his cousin, Kate’s, testimony that landed Dustin’s foster brother, Randy in prison.  As a result of this traumatic event, Dustin became interested in studying the psychology of Satanic cults and violence expressed through them.  He developed his thesis around it, testified in many cases as an expert, and currently works as a therapist.  In present day, Dustin’s life starts unravelling as the delicate tendrils that were holding it together gradually give way.  His wife dies of cancer at the age of 43, his two sons have graduated from high school, and his foster brother Randy has been released from prison with the help of the Innocence Project working on his behalf.  In current day, Dustin is drawn into investing a possible homicide cluster of drunk college boys who were determined accidental drownings by the police.

The books chapters are narrated by various different characters (sometimes in the first person and sometimes in the third) and they deeply reflect the mindset of the characters.  The characters become more and more isolated from each, so the reader knows more about what is going on with them than they know what is going on with each other or in some cases themselves.

The chapters from Dustin’s mindset are particularly troubling.  His thoughts and sense of reality seem to be losing footing.  He takes up drinking and smoking.  His thoughts are repeating themselves.  He trails off not finishing thoughts or sentences.   He wonders if he’s in a fugue state.   His cousins and foster brother describe the young Dustin as trusting and gullible.  It seems without his wife as an anchor, he has become so again, particularly with regards to his patient Aqil.  Aqil is obsessed with the “murders” of drunk frat boys that have drown in waterways while intoxicated.  Dustin becomes drawn into “investigating” these incidences with Aqil, presenting himself to others as an investigator or writer.  He confides in Aqil so much that it seems there is a role reversal.  In fact, he knows very little about Aqil, but has become emotionally dependent upon him.  Dustin has trouble seeing what is right in front of him.  His son is getting deeper into drugs and pretends to go to a college he never enrolled in.  Dustin becomes an easy victim once again, trusting and gullible as always, without a strong sense of self.

This book brings up many questions.  What are memories composed of?  How reliable are our memories?  Can a fictionalized statement in the past be remembered as a truth?  What defines us?  Is it our perception of ourselves or how others perceive us?  How does grief shape our thoughts and mental stability?

This is a long, dark twisted mystery delving deep into the psychology of its characters.  At points it’s hard to read as the writing reflects the altered and distressed mental states of its characters.  It experiments with writing in chart format, chunking bits of information together in little boxes,  letting the reader grasp that it is not making coherent sense with the character.  I enjoyed the story and the writing, although it felt more difficult to get through because of it’s style.  I felt the quotations at the beginning of each chapter were perfect for setting the chapter up for it’s intended purpose and were very thought provoking in and of themselves.   The last chapter begins with this quote: “In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation.” – Sacheverell Sitwell, For Want of the Golden City.  

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Wave tells Kate that she sacrificed them and that this is her reward.  What does she mean by that?
  2. What do you think happens to Aqil at the end of the novel?
  3. Who are the gibbeners and what do they represent in this novel?
  4. How is the self defined?  By those close to us or by ourself?  Why is Dustin so concerned that Rusty will change his son’s perception of him?
  5. How are these two sets of murders connected?
  6. How were Dustin’s parents and his Aunt and Uncle really killed and why?  Who is killing these boys and why?  What is Dustin’s role in each set of “murders”?
  7. Why do you think Dustin becomes wraps up in Aqil’s investigation?
  8. Why do you believe that Dustin’s reality is decomposing in this novel? What factors are contributing?
  9. Why does Wave stop speaking to Kate after Rusty’s trial?
  10. What is the meaning and importance of memories in this novel?
  11. Why doesn’t Dustin want to read the letter written to his wife that he finds in his son’s desk?
  12. Why is Dustin blind to his son’s heroin abuse?
  13. Discuss the meaning of the title?  Ill will toward whom?  From whom?  Why?
  14. Discuss the little mantras that Dustin is always spouting.  What meaning and importance to these have to Dustin?  What does it say about Dustin that he is always spouting mantras?  Which mantras stick out in your mind?

 

Ron Charles’ Review in The Washington Post

Review by Scott Bradfield in the Los Angeles Times

An Interview with Dan Chaon as conducted by The Millions

Dan Chaon’s website