Publisher: Hutchinson Heinemann (Trade Paperback – 20 September 2022)
Length: 464 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
That master of historical fiction, Robert Harris, returns with another deeply compelling read, this time diving into one of the most fascinating manhunts in history with Act of Oblivion.
1660, England. It is the dawn a new age in English history. Following the death of Oliver Cromwell, the country has allowed King Charles II to come to power. In exchange, the King has agreed to clemency for the former Parliamentarians, allowing peace to return to England for the first time in decades. However, the King’s clemency is not absolute, and under the terms of the Act of Oblivion, all the men involved in the execution of his father, King Charles I, including the 59 men who signed his death warrant, are to be hunted down and brutally executed.
General Edward Whalley and his son-in-law, Colonel William Goffe, are two such men. Former Parliamentarian leaders, their signatures lie prominent on the king’s death warrant. Knowing that their deaths are close behind, Whalley and Goffe are forced to abandon their families and flee to the colonies. Arriving in New England, Whalley and Goffe attempt to become part of the local community, but the shadow of their treason is far-reaching, and both old soldiers will have to live with the consequences of their action.
In London, Richard Nayler has been appointed as secretary of the regicide committee of the Privy Council. Tasked with tracking down, capturing and executing all the men wanted in relation to the King’s death, Nayler attacks his task with zeal and passion, determined to bring justice to those who wronged the kingdom. However, Nayler saves the vast amount his hatred and determination for Whalley and Goffe, two men he bears a particular grudge against. Soon, a large bounty is placed on the two fugitive’s heads, and Nayler himself arrives in America, determined to see the men captured. Forced to flee across the continent, Whalley and Goffe find themselves as outcasts and fugitives wherever they go. The chase is on in the new world, and no-one is prepared for how far this mission of vengeance will go.
Robert Harris does it again, producing a brilliant and riveting historical epic that reconstructs fantastic historical events in impressive detail. I have long been a fan of Harris’s writing, having deeply enjoyed An Officer and a Spy and V2, and his latest book, Act of Oblivion, is one his better works. I had an outstanding time getting through this complex novel, especially as it spent substantial time diving into a unique historical occurrence I was unfamiliar with.
I had an exceptional time with Act of Oblivion, especially as Harris presents an elaborate and massive story set across multiple years. Leaning heavily into historical sources, Harris dives deep into the flight of Goffe and Whalley and perfectly portrays their journey to America and the hardships they encountered. This proves to be quite an intense and frustrating tale, as these two protagonists suffer a great deal through the course of the book. Forced to abandon their families, Goffe and Whalley are initially seen as heroes by the people of Boston and Cambridge, but the two fugitives are gradually forced to flee from these towns due to the machinations of the English and their former enemies. Forced to flee to smaller and smaller settlements, the protagonists are chucked into some uncomfortable positions in their flight, which includes years of depredation and isolation throughout the country. The full tale of their time in America (or at least what is known), is pretty damn remarkable, and I felt that Harris did a wonderful job bringing it to life and showing what these two might of experienced and the lengths they went through to survive. However, it does occasionally get slow in places, mainly because the historical fugitives were often unable to move for fear of being captured.
Harris covers these slower periods well by mixing in a second major storyline that runs parallel to the depictions of Whalley and Goffe. This second storyline is primarily set in England and Europe and showcases the events occurring while the fugitives are in hiding. Mainly shown from the perspective of the fictional character hunting them, Richard Nayler, as well as several scenes that show the fugitives’ family, this second storyline adds some real colour and danger to the events, especially as you get to witness the hunt from the other end. The blend of fictional and historically accurate storylines works extremely well, and Harris creates a deeply fascinating and compelling overall narrative that really draws you in. Seeing the simultaneous actions of both hunter and fugitives is a lot of fun, and I loved Nayler’s reactions to the constant escapes of Whalley and Goffe. Harris also spends time showing the hunt for the other regicides, which Nayler embarks on with greater success. Not only does this add in some additional fun action and historical context, but it also ups the stakes of the main storyline, as you are forced to witness the gruesome fate that awaits Whalley and Goffe if caught. All this adds up to quite a remarkable tale, and I was deeply impressed with how exciting and captivating Harris was able to make these historical events appear.
One thing that is extremely clear about Act of Oblivion is the sheer amount of historical research that Harris put into crafting this book. There is so much exceptional and compelling detail put into Act of Oblivion, as Harris goes out of his way to make this book as historically accurate as possible. Naturally a substantial amount of this research goes into showing the known events of the two fugitives, as Harris meticulously recounts where they went and the various places they were forced to hide. While the author does add in a few literary embellishments, this appears to be a very accurate and intriguing depiction of the fugitives’ flight in America, and I had such an amazing time seeing what they went through. Harris makes sure to try and tells as much of their tale as possible, and the book goes all the way up until 1679, when the records end. At the same time, Harris spends a large amount of time exploring the history of the rest of the world. The novel is chock full of intriguing depictions of various key parts of British and American history at the time, which I found to be extremely fascinating, especially as you get to see how England changed after the return of the
King. Harris also makes sure to examine how major historical events around the world might have impacted the lives of the two fugitives, and I felt that he worked all these fascinating events into the main story extremely well. All the historical aspects of the book are showcased to the reader in a fantastic and very readable way, and even non-history fans will be able to dive into this story extremely easily. This is mostly because the historical events themselves are pretty damn remarkable (honestly historical reality stranger than fiction in some places), but I really appreciated how well Harris was able to explore them and showcase them to the reader.
Another historical aspect of this book I deeply enjoyed was the author’s extremely detailed and moving depictions of the American countryside and its settlements in the 17th century. Quite a lot of the book is spent out in the American wilds, as the two protagonists are constantly fleeing from their pursuers and avoiding people, and Harris makes sure to patiently and lovingly depict the various locations they find themselves in. You really get a sense of the beauty and danger of the land during this period, and I loved seeing the various English characters react to the wide open spaces after spending time in cities like London. Harris also takes the time to describe several of the historical settlements that the characters journeyed to and through, and you get a real sense of how built up or settled they were. I found it fascinating to see all the descriptions about the various settlements, especially as many are quite significant cities in modern times, and it was really cool to see how they originated. The descriptions of towns like Boston and Cambridge were pretty intriguing, especially as I didn’t realise just how built-up they were during this period (sentiments that some of the character’s shared), and I loved also seeing the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, especially as Harris also explored the events that saw it renamed as something far more iconic. Throw in the deeply fascinating depictions of the people inhabiting these settlements, including the distinctive religious differences (so many puritans) and political sentiments. Religion in particular becomes quite a key part of this book, and watching the various Puritan figures discuss their beliefs and their thoughts on the actions of the main characters, is particularly intriguing, as you get to see how these religious fugitives shaped early America. Overall, this is a very impressive and clearly heavily researched look at 17th century America, which all historical fiction fans will deeply appreciate.
I also really enjoyed the central figures of Act of Oblivion and I found their storylines to be very compelling. As I mentioned above, I really didn’t know that much about Edward Whalley and William Goffe before reading this book, but that swiftly changed. Harris did a remarkable job showcasing the lives of these two historical figures and you really get to know everything about them. While I am sure that Harris made a few character changes to fit the narrative, I felt that the overall presentation of them was pretty realistic. Harris really highlights their personalities, religious convictions, and deep pride in the actions they took under Cromwell throughout the book as they spend time remembering their pasts. All the key moments are their lives are captured in some way throughout the book, either in the plot or in their memories, and you soon see what events led them to become fugitives. While the depictions of some their actions during the war and Cromwell’s control of England does make them a tad unsympathetic, I grew attached to them, especially as you see them suffer in isolation over a period of years. Harris did a remarkable job showcasing how he believed these people would have felt spending years and years trapped in attics and basements, and you can just feel the mental and physical impacts it had on them. This was frankly a brilliant portrayal, and I had an excellent time getting to know these unique historical figures.
Aside from Whalley and Goffe, the other major character I need to mention is Richard Nayler, the man charged with hunting the fugitives down. Nayler is a purely fictional character, although Harris indicates upfront that someone likely had this job in the 17th century. I quite enjoyed the portrayal of Nayler in this book, especially as he serves as a grim and determined counterpart to the protagonists. A Royalist who witnessed the execution of King Charles I, Nayler goes about his duties with a resolute duty, determined to make all the regicides pay. However, his main obsession lies with Whalley and Goffe, who holds responsible for the death of his wife and child. Despite this tragic past, it is a times hard to feel sorry for the super serious Nayler, especially as he has little compassion for others, even the innocent. However, he is quite a captivating figure, especially as his growing obsession with finding the fugitives becomes more and more apparent. While his fellow returned Royalists initially share his determination, it soon becomes evident that he is true fanatic, while the others are purely in it for political reasons. Harris really shows the downside of obsession through this character, especially as Nayler sacrifices a lot to try and find the fugitives. I felt he had an impressive storyline throughout Act of Oblivion, and this great fictional character played off the real historical figures extremely well.
Robert Harris’ latest novel, Act of Oblivion, once again highlights the author’s outstanding skill as he recounts a particularly fascinating occurrence from history. I loved the amazing story contained in Act of Oblivion, especially as the author did such a great job incorporating historical events into an intense and captivating plot. Deeply intriguing and very entertaining, Act of Oblivion is a highly recommended read, and I can’t wait to see what elaborate historical tale Harris comes up with next.