4 out of 4 stars
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In this classic tale of hubris, we meet Hiram McDowell, a renowned surgeon, philanthropist, mountain climber and marathon runner. Hiram McDowell begins his story as no less than a ‘super-human hero’. He is unstoppable, believing all the world exists to serve him and any inconveniences must be swiftly despatched. A man of questionable morals, he has no qualms about deceiving his wife or betraying his colleagues. His ambition surpasses any conscience he may have and the feelings of others are inconsequential. This cold-hearted determination is evident in the opening chapter when, with no remorse, he abandons his ailing companion to die on a mountaintop in Nepal.
In the first half of the book, Hiram’s star seems to be getting brighter and brighter. As the President of the International College of Surgeons and founder of a charitable medical facility in Nepal, it seems he can do no wrong. His appointment as Secretary of Health for the U.S. Government is the final feather in his cap. Then things start to fall apart.
A television reporter, Paige Sterling, is tasked with presenting Hiram’s accomplishments to the world in a special television feature. What she succeeds in doing, however, is exposing him. Untrue claims, misappropriation of money and professional misconduct all come back to haunt him until finally, in pride and haste, he makes a decision which leads to his ruin.
Faced with decades in prison, Hiram becomes a fugitive and begins his journey of self-discovery. In the second part of the book he takes to wandering the American landscape, moving from mountains to cities, from the coast to the sub-continent. On his travels he meets different people, his character is moulded and his humility is honed. He manages to evolve into someone completely different, like a phoenix rising from the ashes of his destruction.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It has extraordinary depth and the characters are so complete and well developed that I felt a deep connection to all of them. Sophie, sensitive and loyal, was by far the most endearing; Paige was aptly portrayed as the ambitious yet principled journalist who has ambivalent opinions of McDowell, and Maud represents the pivotal turning point in Hiram’s self-awareness. It is Maud who first challenges his ideas and makes him take a good, hard look at his life and his actions. It is she who sets him on his road to redemption.
The interactions between characters, their relationships with each other and the ensuing dialogues are handled superbly. However, some minor inconsistencies in the timeline of the story made things a little confusing. While there were very few grammatical errors, several mistakes were noted where the wrong word was used, such as “wanted” instead of “wondered” and “lightening” instead of “lightning”. I think it would be a pity to penalize such a good book for the sake of these and hope further editing will take care of them.
The pace of this novel is dynamic, with no lulls in between key events. There are occasional jaw-dropping moments, such as when Sophie’s friend is murdered and also when Jeremy commits the most terrible of crimes. I had to go back and re-read these parts just to enjoy the shock-effect a little more. Hiram’s fall from grace is swift and complete, and there is some satisfaction in the poetic justice of it all. In spite of this, I found myself strangely rooting for this man who had done so many terrible things. Thankfully, in the end, he manages to redeem himself and finally achieve something good in his life.
I highly recommend this book to any reader who likes powerful character development and plenty of food for thought. McDowell’s story will take you on a journey full of twists and turns, both good and bad. When you turn the final page, you’ll feel sad and satisfied all at once, and strangely wanting more.
I finished McDowell with the feeling that, if it were at all possible to get hold of Hiram’s completed memoirs, I would be very interested to read them. Seldom have I come across such a complex and multi-faceted character as this, and I feel he would make a fascinating case-study for any psychologist. Only once adversity had stripped him of everything did the real person emerge and redeem himself in one final act of altruism. And hopefully, that’s how we will remember Hiram McDowell.
I would unreservedly give McDowell a rating of 4 out of 4 stars and look forward to many more books by this talented writer.
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