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Forever    by Pete Hamill order for
by Pete Hamill
Order:  USA  Can
Back Bay, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Softcover, Audio, CD

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Forever is a story that spans centuries but not generations. It is hard to classify, beginning as a historical novel but quickly developing a strong element of fantasy. We first encounter its protagonist Cormac O'Connor as five-year-old Robert Carson gazing at the whitewashed home (that 'is never the same and always the same') near Lough Neagh in northern Ireland.

Cormac has an unusual background. His Hebrew mother fills him with stories of Noah, Abraham and Moses. His blacksmith Da is old Irish. Fergus teaches his son swordsmanship and to be a Celt. The neighbours suspect them of being hidden Catholics. When tragedy hits the family in their first encounter with the powerful Earl of Warren, Cormac learns about the Otherworld, that the unjust are barred from it and also those 'who fail to avenge injustice ... For want of courage. For want of passion.'

A second encounter with the Earl gives the boy a thirst for vengeance, which ultimately sends him and his father's sword across the ocean to 1740 New York. There he works at a printing press (the details of its day to day operation are fascinating), forms a relationship with a young, indentured Irish girl, and fights slavery and corruption. He also continues a shipboard friendship with Kongo, an African slave who turns out to be a kind of shaman, a 'babalawo'.

Kongo helps Cormac to achieve revenge (at least for this generation). Later, when Cormac saves him after a failed rebellion, Kongo gives him the gift of (more or less) living forever. There is a catch of course; he can never leave Manhattan and 'must truly live' until he meets a dark-skinned woman, whose body is adorned with spirals; with her help he will be able to reach the Otherworld. Cormac continues on to live through centuries of history; leading a black patrol in the war for independence, serving a stint in Bridewell Prison, observing several cholera epidemics, and authoring early dime novels.

Cormac paints, works as a reporter, and enjoys a series of temporary relationships with women. He lives long enough to become jaded and to see, everywhere he goes, the ghosts of New York past. He tells us that New Yorkers share a 'kind of optimistic fatalism.' As he contemplates his 'journey from a blacksmith's forge' to a DVD collection in the year 2000, he feels that his life is absurd. Then he encounters both the spiralled woman, Delfina, and another rich Warren, who has his father's sword, lost long before.

Of course, there is a link to the World Trade Center and events unfold to culminate in 9/11. As the story concludes in the aftermath of that devastation, Cormac comes to terms with his past and finally finds a reason for forever. I enjoyed the novel (though I would have enjoyed a shorter version even more) as a celebration of African / Irish New York and a commentary on injustice and vengeance.

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