Book review: Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris

Charles II has been restored to the throne and Parliament wants revenge on those who signed the death warrant of his father, Charles I. Under the Act of Oblivion, the 59 men are to be rounded up and put on trial. Colonel Whalley and his son-in-law, Colonel Goffe, are two of the signatories. They are on the run, and make it to the Puritan colonies of Massachusetts.

Richard Nayler is working for the Privy Council and is charged with tracking down the fugitives. He is single-minded in his pursuit, and, for his own reasons, is especially focused on Whalley and Goffe.

Whalley was cousin and friend to the late Cromwell before joining the New Model Army, while Goffe’s allegiance to the cause arose from his religious fervour. Now, they are thrown together as they move from town to town in New England, often in hiding, at times living in the wilderness, dependent on the trust and goodwill of the communities whose religious or political beliefs make them sympathetic to their cause.

The narrative moves back and forth across the Atlantic. In London it takes in the machinations at court, the horrific executions of those of the 59 who were either captured or gave themselves up in the (misplaced) hope of leniency. We learn the backstory of the (fictional) Nayler and see the lengths he will go to to achieve his ends. We see the effects of their absconding on the family and supporters of the fugitives.

Act of Oblivion includes some fascinating detail about the Puritan communities in America, their relations with the native Americans and the Dutch settlers, and the way, despite the risks, they maintain strong communications with their fellow believers in London. Daily life in London is less vividly drawn (perhaps because Nayler has little interest outside his mission) until the later stages of the book when we see the 1665 plague and the Great Fire of London through the eyes of Goffe’s wife, Frances. We also learn a great deal about Cromwell’s military campaigns and his interactions with Charles I though the device of a fictional journal written by Whalley.

My one disappointment with Act of Oblivion is that the characters don’t feel vividly drawn. The protagonists all run true to type, there are none of the contradictions or surprises that draw a reader in. The forced intimacy of the worldly Whalley and the spiritual Goffe should have been explosive but it somehow never sparks. Nayler is given a motivation for his obsession with the fugitives but it’s a little too neat.

Apart from the insertion of Nayler, and some of the events where Harris has used invention to cover the gaps in the record, this could almost be narrative history. There is the kind of extraneous detail that historians include for completeness, but which would normally only make it into a novel if it was significant later on – such as when Whalley and Goffe’s pursuers knock on the door of a family, and the names of all five daughters are listed, although they are immediately sent from the room and never heard from again.

It’s only in the final chapters, that I felt the characters and plot came to life. Still, I did feel engaged enough to keep reading (and it is a long book) and the intriguing end rewards the effort.

I received a copy of Act of Oblivion from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Act of Oblivion on Goodreads

Want to know more? I enjoyed Robert Harris on the History Extra podcast, talking about the his research for Act of Oblivion and the new facts he unearthed.

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