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Tuesday, November 15, 2022



A clever novel, building slowly and showing more than just the hunt for two fugitives. (Review by Margaret von Klemperer, courtesy of The Witness)

Two of the three main characters in Robert Harris’s latest historical novel Act of Oblivion are Colonels Edward Whalley and William Goffe, both signatories to the death warrant of King Charles 1 at the end of the English Civil War. And the third, who is the only purely fictional character in the book, is Richard Nayler, the man who wants them to pay for what he sees as their crime after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. All three, though on different sides of a divide, are fanatics, with the singularity of vision and narrowness of purpose which that implies.

Cleverly, Harris manages to make them all sympathetic – to a degree - although their fanaticism repels us now, even though it is by no means an extinct trait. The most appealing is Whalley, probably because the author allows us the deepest insight into his character and motivation, and partly because, of the three, he is the one who displays the most humanity and grows the most during the telling of the tale. But all are believable as Nayler’s pursuit of Whalley and Goffe makes its implacable way across the remoter parts of the largely Puritan colony of New England, back to England, on to Europe and to America once more.

The fugitives have to spend many years – the novel ends in 1674 – hiding in depressing conditions. Even in the largely Puritan New England society, loyalties are divided and spies and traitors abound so Whalley and Goffe can never live openly. Harris skilfully weaves in pieces of the past of all the characters, giving the story a depth and credibility that a simple, speedy tale of pursuit would never achieve. His research is comprehensive, with some of the most unlikely events firmly rooted in history. But it is fiction, and Harris can allow his imagination free rein in many places.

Act of Oblivion – the title refers to the act which was passed in England and found the regicides guilty of treason in absentia – is a clever novel, building slowly and showing more than just the hunt for two fugitives. It draws a portrait of a divided society on both sides of the Atlantic, and shows that the scars of a wounded nation and sectarian divisions take a long and bitter time to heal, if they ever do. - Margaret von Klemperer

Act of Oblivion is published by Hutchinson Heinemann. ISBN 9781529151756