Hutchinson Heinemann | 2022 (1 September) | 480p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book
It is 1660 and the restoration of King Charles II leads to one of the greatest manhunts in history – the pursuit of the Regicides. All those who signed the death warrant of Charles I and took part in his execution in 1649 had a price on their head. Even those who had died peacefully in their beds were exhumed and strung up. And any foolish enough to come forward on the promise of an amnesty and forgiveness paid the ultimate price for their misplaced trust. Edward Whalley and his son-in-law William Goffe led forces under Cromwell and flourished. Now they have run almost as far as they can – to New England and the safe houses of republican Boston. But, when regicide hunter Richard Naylor picks up their scent, nowhere is safe, because nothing will stop this man who has his own personal reasons for vengeance. The past can not be forgiven.
Over the years, Robert Harris has become one of my very favourite authors. His novels are incredibly varied and he has a genius for finding mystery and thrills in the most unexpected places, even in the selection of a new pope in Conclave. What an amazing novel that is. He is also the author of my favourite historical novels, Pompeii, and those other fantastic Roman novels about Cicero. He can also turn history on its head, as we saw with The Second Sleep, or go straight to the heart of the matter in real historical events, as in Munich. Now we go back to the 17th century and the repercussions of the execution of a King. Such an act is of such magnitude that it must tear the world apart and only justice can heal the wound. Richard Naylor, the fictional character of the novel, is almost inhuman in his determination, neither good nor evil, but resolute and damaged to his core.
Act of Oblivion follows both stories, that of the hunter and that of the hunted, on both sides of the Atlantic. I found both stories equally fascinating and the detail of London and Boston, so completely different, as well as other developing settlements in New England, completely absorbing. There is such a sense of new and old, forward and backward. But this is a Robert Harris novel and so nothing is straightforward and it’s not long before the waters are muddied.
There is something truly epic in the efforts of Whalley and Goffe to escape capture, as well as in the stoic endurance suffered by Whalley’s daughter and Goffe’s wife, in her love and the strength that it feeds. On one level, it is a thoroughly exciting adventure, with something of the Wild West about it as Whalley and Goffe hide in the most unlikely places, just a breath away from capture. There are also political discussions – the execution of the King is an act that requires justification to all, including those who did the deed. London and Boston are worlds away from one another and yet, as Harris shows, a cause can be no more noble than the men who fight for it. Adding to the intrigue are the reminiscences of Whalley and Goffe of the extraordinary man who made them, leading to their destruction – Oliver Cromwell.
While the reader can sympathise with and admire Whalley and Goffe for what they must endure, there is also cause for deep loathing. Likewise, Naylor also deserves pity and understanding. He is not a monster of his own making. I loved how caught up I became in these lives. Some of what happens here has passed into American folklore. There are some incredible moments! This is a novel every bit as exciting as you would want from a cat and mouse hunt to the death. It is also brilliantly written by an author who knows exactly where to focus, whatever the period of history, whoever the people involved. Outstanding.
An Officer and a Spy
The Second Sleep