4 out of 4 stars
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This work of fiction by William H. Coles is a thoughtful, and at times provocative, novel about an ambitious surgeon and his ascent to (and fall from) glory. In a journey beginning at the Himalayan peaks of Nepal, through some of America’s most densely populated cities, and later in its wilderness, Hiram claws his way to the top of his profession, first as the president of his medical college and later as a nominee for Secretary of Health to the president. All the while, he slights friends and forsakes family in favor of fulfilling his own desires. However, when his fortunes take a turn for the worse, Hiram finds himself reduced to living either as a homeless man on city streets or as a woodsman. This isolation, along with brief moments of reprieve in the form of honest work, love, and friendship, work to change Hiram’s perspective of the world he initially believed to be so unjust towards him.
McDowell is, like the expeditions that its main character enjoys so much, a trek into the unknown with priceless gems scattered along the way. I appreciated the use of third-person in this work because, in a way, Hiram is more or less on trial and not just before a jury of his peers and his loved ones. The readers serve as part of the jury as well. Coles moreover artfully lays out the evidence for his audience through the incorporation of not only Hiram’s perspective, but also that of his family, acquaintances, and enemies. As cold and driven as Hiram makes himself out to be, one can’t help but sympathize, at least in part, with the avid doctor through the eyes of his children.
Moreover, I appreciated the layout of the book and how the chapters were relatively brief, providing a snippet of one character’s perspective and then switching to another in the next chapter. Such a tactic, I felt, helped to further create the sensation of presenting fragments of evidence to the audience, so that they in turn can better decide for themselves whether the character of Hiram McDowell is truly innocent or guilty.
Furthermore, the author’s narrative language and imagery were impeccable and, in several instances, stunning, particularly in his descriptions of Nepalese life and culture during Sophie and Billie’s travels to the east. With that said, perhaps my favorite scene, which was so carefully worded by the author, was in Chapter 45 where Selena, the daughter of a shrewd librarian and former college professor, sings and plays for Hiram. For me, the girl’s tender performance, full of “pleasurable feeling of progression, of heartbeats, and breathing, and sleep patterns, hunger, laughter, and of life itself,” marked a turning point in Hiram’s story that I was eager to see the resolution of.
Concerning the mechanics of the novel's language, there were no spelling or grammatical errors that I could find. The utmost care seems to have been taken during the editing process, and the result is an overall reading that displays a level of professionalism that is worthy of any bookstore.
Nevertheless, this book contains highly mature themes, explicit language, and even moments of nudity and sexual content. Thus, it is not a work for children or teenagers. However, adults who are interested in exploring themes of truth and atonement through the lens of philosophy would find this work very interesting. Moreover, I believe that this would be a nice introduction for readers who are interested in travel fiction, given the frequent change in setting and the depth of description for each location.
Overall, due to the raw, realistic themes of the book, thoughtful structure, memorable characters, and beautiful imagery, I would give this work 4 out of 4 stars. Hiram McDowell’s story is not one that is easily forgotten.
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