Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Forever by Pete Hamill

Foreveris an extraordinary work of speculative fiction that you will find shelved in the general fiction or literature areas of a bookstore rather than sci-fi/fantasy. It is the story of a proud city and the people that make it so: New York City, specifically Manhattan.

Cormac O’Conner was born outside of Belfast in about 1723. We first meet him as the 8-year old son of a blacksmith. Cormac learns that he is not a Protestant like those around him; he is not even one of the oppressed Catholics. Cormac’s mother is descended from a long line of Irish Jews and his father is pure Irish Celtic. Cormac is raised in the duel life of a Protestant by day and his secret education as a Celt and Jew by night.

Tragic events affect the O’Conner’s, and Cormac flees Ireland to New York City in 1740 with the justice of Clan to perform. He arrives in New York to find a tiered society with the Irish and African slaves at the bottom. Honor-bound to do good and aid the oppressed, Cormac finds himself at the heart of a rebellion and in league with a powerful African shaman and slave. He is rewarded for his efforts with the gift of eternal life, so long as he never leaves the island of Manhattan. Cormac awaits the prophesized arrival of a mysterious tattooed woman who can guide him to the Otherworld as his past haunts him, as he observes and lives New York and its long history, as he unknowingly searches for a love to set him free.

Foreverhad me hooked from its first few pages to the end of the novel. The back story is plot enough for this book, but it is about so much more than one Irishman living in New York. This is the story of the people that founded, guided, and made New York what it is. Not just the powerful, but dirty immigrants, indentured servants, and freed slaves. Nor is this book just a clever re-telling of the history of New York. Foreveris a contemporary book as much as anything. My first thoughts were that since Foreveris so rooted in the New York of today (it’s filled with references that already are fading from my memory) that it will never be the classic it deserves to be. Later reflection made me realize that’s precisely the reason it is a classic.

On my 10-point scale, where 5 is a take-it or leave-it novel, and 10 is simply unsurpassed (note: I’ve never rated a book a full 10, and doubt that I will), Foreverranks very high with a 9. This book receives the highest recommendation I’ve given in a review yet. No, it isn’t the perfect book – the voice is a bit inconsistent and often in contrast to the time period covered and you’ll probably see the ending coming from some distance away (though the ultimate resolution isn't so clear), but the quality of the writing and story lift the book to a must read for fans of any genre.

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