4 out of 4 stars
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Ultimately, we can only know another human being by what he says and does.
That is exactly what author William H Coles gives us in McDowell; an objective examination of a man as seen from different angles – wife, children, co-workers, colleagues, friends, media and the ever-judging public with its own agenda. They surround him like a circle of spotlights flashing on and off. I found this approach challenging and refreshing. The facts are presented, and the reader is left to draw his own conclusions according to his own standards.
At first glance Hiram McDowell is a remarkable man, privileged, wealthy, intelligent, good looking, a top surgeon, philanthropist and an adventurous mountaineer with the means to pursue his passion. We soon discover he is also completely self-centred, so focussed on himself and his achievements, so convinced he is justified in all he does, that he is oblivious to the way he affects others. He is blind to their pain, hurt, anger, resentment, hate, lack of self-worth and need for revenge.
The writing is clear and concise, unemotional and distanced. We watch objectively as McDowell destroys his wife and damages his children, an accusation he would deny while citing the times he stretched out a paternalistic, patronising hand to rescue them.
Inevitably, McDowell falls. Thrown out of his high position, he is convicted of murder for euthanising his seriously handicapped grandson. He believes absolutely that he has been victimised, that he is innocent of all charges. He realises he has a choice - to remain an embittered victim refusing to take responsibility for his actions and their impact, or to find out what life is supposed to be about.
Coles brings to life the people McDowell encounters after escaping from prison, the little people living their lives on the fringes of society who have their own stories to tell and values to impart. They include wise, clear-eyed Maud; Hulga with her unrequited dreams of love; Winona, finding her own peace in the desert; and a charming portrait of Gatemouth Willie Brown, a jazz guitarist in the streets of New Orleans.
I wondered how this was to end. The gradual development of understanding could not be replaced with a triumphant epiphany; it would destroy all the realism that went before. The author was ahead of me. The ending was elegant, understandable and thoroughly in keeping, rounding off the novel neatly.
This was a drama that made me ponder on the big questions of life and meaning, something I always cherish, while telling a vivid and nuanced story. I recommend McDowell to readers who are interested in character and motivation in a story which is probably best categorised as Other Fiction. I give this 4 out of 4 stars.
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