This post will be full of SPOILERS, so please stop here if you’d like to read the book.
I’m teaching a fiction course this semester and to make life easy on my first leap into the forays of academia, I’m having my students read a few books I already know. This has proven to be both a good and bad idea (for me, not my students). On the good, revisiting “Forever” on an academic level has brought out so much of Hamill’s craft that I missed on the first go. On the bad….well, we’ll talk about that later.
First the good. Can we just talk about craft for a minute? Hamill truly is a master, taking this enormous 600 paged story and keeping us engaged, entertained, and learning the whole time. He weaves elements from one time period to the next so seamlessly that I literally had to read with a pencil and a highlighter to notice what he was doing, and it was just short of brilliant. Also, his language….his poignant, beautiful, poetic language that takes these long lost snapshots of history and brings them rearing to life in nothing but ink and words. I literally cried at some points, not because the plot was sad, but because the language Hamill uses to describe what Cormac is seeing is just so moving.
The joy of this read is watching New York City change from 1740 to 2011, to go from a tiny little mud covered port town to the raging, sprawling city of today with Cormac as the thread, remembering, remembering, remembering as he lives through four centuries. One of the successful ways I felt Hamill kept us going through so much time without it feeling like a whirlwind, which I didn’t pick up on the first time I read it, is that our main man, Cormac, is a fairly quiet and vague character allowing all the historical figures we come into contact with to shine on the page. Hamill uses an ironic twist in that even though Cormac is supposed to be our larger than life hero in his standing up for the downtrodden, and earning the blessing/curse of his immortality, he’s not actually the history maker in this story. He’s simply the chronicler of time, with the five main characters he comes into contact with stealing the show. It works and keeps the story fresh because we never get tired of hearing about Cormac’s life, because it’s not really about Cormac until the very end; it’s about the people and the city, and the evolution of a place.
Hamill also masterfully weaves the magical elements into the tale so that we never question the fact that Cormac is immortal and will continue to live on and on until he finds the lady with the spiral tattoo. Hamill starts it with Mary Morrigan and Cormac’s visits to the Celtic circle, setting us up to know the lore and that Cormac comes from a line of magic. Then as the story progresses, Hamill brings in the African magic and the consistent motif of flying birds to represent the spiritual African princess, Tamora. So by the time Cormac is granted his long life, we’re prepared and ready to accept such a turn of the magical in a historical setting. It’s centralized, contained, and brilliantly done.
And now the bad. On my first read of this book, I felt that the thing that pulled me out was Cormac’s ‘too-good’ attitude and that he always does the right thing and seems to be blameless. However, on second read, the problem for me wasn’t his character -because on a close read, Hamill makes sure that he his flawed enough to be believable. My problem is in the revenge-plot, which is actually what gave me Cormac’s ‘too-good’ character the first time. Long story, short – Cormac’s parents are both killed by the Earl of Warren, a British slave merchant running his operation from Belfast in the 1730s. Cormac’s Celtic tribe requires him to end Warren’s line for the injustice done to the family and the tribe, so Cormac (as a 16 year old boy) takes his father’s sword and pursues the Earl to New York where he’s been expanding his slave trade. And while this is the catalyst for Cormac to leave Ireland and start the American part of the story, he kills the Earl within six months of arriving on New York’s shores. Revenge achieved! But no, the Earl’s son manages to escape and comes around as a skeevy red-coat officer during the American Revolution. And Cormac swiftly dispatches him, too. Great, we think, the line is over as far as our story’s concerned. Cormac can now live his long life in peace and watch the world go by. And he does, until 2001, when a Warren descendant wanders onto the scene.
And this is where the revenge plot falls flat for me, since Hamill gives Cormac the out…..Cormac has been tracing the Warren line for years and finds out that there’s still tons of them around because of other Warren family members who aren’t the Earl. And because Cormac can’t leave the island without committing suicide, he’s not able to go smite the family to dust, so he just leaves it alone. But then he becomes obsessed with killing this new Warren because he steps foot on New York soil. And then I just couldn’t believe the revenge-plot anymore. You’ve made it 350 years with the Warrens wandering around the world, Pal, and you haven’t seemed to care. And now just becuase one wandered into your backyard, you have to get all weird about it? He’s not a direct descendant, so it doesn’t actually fit the Celtic justice, anyway. For me, it just felt like Cormac matured so far, and then we snap right back to him being this vengeful young person. While he doesn’t end up killing young Warren in the end because he realizes how futile and silly it is, last part of the book focuses on the will-he/won’t-he, and I was about done with the revenge plot by page 507. However, like my last read, I’m not deducting a star for this, because even though the revenge plot annoyed me, I know why Hamill did it. I get what he was going for, and that it brings us full circle as Cormac is deciding whether or not he’s done with this life or not. It just wasn’t a device that worked for me personally.
Even if you’re not interested in history or magical semi-immortal people, this book is worth reading just for the language itself. The descriptions and dense beauty packed into the different time periods is excellent, and I loved revisiting the strange and amazing world Hamill has created.
5 stars for excellent craft and beautiful storytelling.