My second five-star book of the year!
“Forever” follows Cormac O’Conner, an Irishman from the 1730s, who becomes gifted with long life through a series of spectacular and semi-magical events after he immigrates to New York. There’s one catch to his near-immortality, though: he can never leave Manhattan Isle. He becomes penned into the island’s boundaries where he watches the dank little Hudson River town turn into the roiling metropolis of the modern era. He lives through British soldiers fighting Washington’s troops in the forests around the city, he endures the long miasma and water deprivation of the 1830s, and then befriends Boss Tweed during the city’s corrupt Victorian age. He watches the rise of computers and the fall of the Twin Towers as the city’s progress and expansion marches on and on. Throughout his life he knows love and tons of loss as he time and again has to watch his friends and lovers grow old and die away. This isn’t to say he doesn’t take advantage of having a life that never ends; Cormac reads, paints, studies, works for newspapers, teaches himself music and languages, and works in every field that interests him. He’s a true Renaissance man, although it would probably be hard to not be after living some three hundred years.
Hamill is a fabulous writer who not only paints a picture of old New York through the ages, but he makes those images move. The book has a very “Station 11” feel to it in the way Hamill structures his piece. Every era comes alive in startling, minute detail that makes the reader nostalgic for what the city once was while simultaneously capturing the darkness and corruption that reigned supreme decade after decade. Starting with the slave trade and all the way up to big city bankers, Hamill’s not afraid to shy away from the deepest, darkest depths of New York’s seedy past, nor is he afraid to go into the details of the class divide and warfare that still exists today. Hamill’s characters are moving and well rounded, taking us on a journey with Cormac and making us love them so much that we are just as crushed as Cormac when he buries them. We know; we know that he will outlive them, but their passing away is painful nonetheless. Sometimes from the absolute brutality of it, and sometimes just because of the loss. And yet Cormac lives on.
This book totally gets 5 stars because I loved it; I loved spending time with the characters, I loved walking through time as the city undulated and changed and remade itself, and the last quarter of the book focusing around 9/11 d*mn near broke me, so it gets a full star just for that. However, sometimes it was seemed like Hamill was trying a little too hard to make Cormac into the super-good guy. There were some serious eye-roll inducing sections about Cormac’s character that made me say “because of course he can speak 5 languages, and he makes friends with all the African slaves, and he’s the anonymous voice of the people in his newspaper editorials, and no one ever seems to question his morals or motive….” Cormac is a nice guy, but there were times when I think Hamill became more excited about the setting Cormac was sitting in, and less about who Cormac was in those settings. In the grand scheme of the book, it’s a minor complaint, and became more of a laughable moment for me as I read than something that cheapened the story, but even so, Hamill’s knowledge of New York City’s history and his dazzling ability to bring it to life allows me to overlook his conveniently too-good main character and still give this the whopping 5 stars it deserves.