Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris

Robert Harris is one of my favourite authors, so a new book by him is always something to look forward to. This one sounded particularly interesting, dealing with a manhunt that takes place in 17th century New England, a setting Harris has never written about before.

The men being hunted are Edward Whalley and his son-in-law William Goffe, both of whom had been colonels in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, fighting for the Parliamentarians against Charles I’s Royalists. When that war ended in a Parliamentarian victory, Whalley and Goffe, along with fifty-seven other men, signed the death warrant that led to the king’s execution. Oliver Cromwell then ruled as Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland until his death in 1658.

Harris’ Act of Oblivion begins in the year 1660, just after Parliament invites the former king’s son to return from exile and take the throne as Charles II. With the monarchy now restored, attention turns to punishing the regicides who were responsible for Charles I’s beheading. Most of these are either already dead or are quickly caught and brought to justice, but several – including Whalley and Goffe – have disappeared, seemingly without trace. Richard Nayler, secretary of the Regicide Committee, is the man tasked with tracking them down.

Part of the novel is written from the perspective of Nayler and part from the points of view of Ned Whalley and Will Goffe. This means that the reader knows from the beginning exactly where Ned and Will have gone – they have crossed the Atlantic to America, to build new lives for themselves in the like-minded Puritan colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut. When Nayler arrives in pursuit, however, the two regicides are forced to move from one hiding place to another, never able to relax, knowing that they could be betrayed by anyone at any time.

If, like me, you come to Act of Oblivion with no knowledge of what happened to Whalley and Goffe (both real people), then I would strongly advise against looking up the details until you’ve finished reading. It’s better not to know and be kept in suspense wondering whether or not they’ll be caught. However, the book wasn’t quite as exciting as I’d expected based on others I’ve read by Robert Harris; although some of the ‘chase’ sections are very gripping, a lot of time is also spent on a memoir Whalley has been writing about the events of the Civil War and his relationship with Oliver Cromwell, and I felt that this slowed the pace down a lot.

Whalley and Goffe are real historical figures, as I’ve said, and so are most of the others we meet in the novel, including not only Charles II, the future James II and the Lord Chancellor, Edward Hyde, but also many of the governors, magistrates and ministers of the colonies in which they seek refuge. Richard Nayler is fictional, although Harris states that he’s sure someone like Nayler must have existed in order to carry out the hunting down of the regicides. I found Whalley and Goffe quite difficult to identify with (particularly Goffe, a religious zealot and Fifth Monarchist who believes that Jesus will return to form a new kingdom on earth in the year 1666), so I actually found myself on Nayler’s side a lot of the time, which probably wasn’t the author’s intention!

The pages of this novel are packed with history, but what I found particularly interesting was the portrayal of life in the recently founded colonies of Connecticut, Massachusetts Bay and New Haven. New Haven’s role in sheltering the two regicides was apparently one of the reasons why that colony was never given a royal charter allowing it to become a state like the other two. The people of New Haven also follow a stricter set of Puritan laws than Whalley and Goffe had been used to in England and it’s interesting to see how differently the two men react to this, with Goffe feeling that he has found his spiritual home while Whalley begins to have doubts.

Act of Oblivion is not my favourite Harris novel, then – I think, for me, An Officer and a Spy and the Cicero trilogy will be hard to beat – but it’s still a very good one. I must find time to catch up on the earlier novels of his that I haven’t read yet!

Thanks to Hutchinson Heinemann for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 47/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

26 thoughts on “Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris

    • Helen says:

      I think my expectations were just a bit too high. It was still a good book – just not as exciting as it had sounded! Harris mentions Killers of the King in his acknowledgements, so I’m pleased to hear you would recommend it. I did read one of Charles Spencer’s other books a few years ago – a biography of Prince Rupert of the Rhine – which I remember enjoying.

  1. margaret21 says:

    I always enjoy Robert Harris when I read him. But somehow, because he’s always there on the radar, I rarely do. There’s always tomorrow, and with such a long TBR, tomorrow never comes.

  2. whatmeread says:

    I agree with you about An Officer and a Spy and the Cicero trilogy, but I will be looking forward to when this one is available here. It doesn’t seem as if Harris’s more recent novels have been quite as good.

  3. jekc says:

    Having just discovered your blog I’m really enjoying reading through past reviews and also the new ones as you post them. Robert Harris is one of my favourite authors as well and I find that even when the story isn’t gripping there’s enough of interest to keep you turning the pages. Andrew Taylor’s latest series also uses the regicides as background I think.

    • Helen says:

      Thank you! I’ve found all of Robert Harris’s books interesting, even when they haven’t been particularly exciting. This is still a very good one, although it’s not a favourite. And yes, Cat’s father was a regicide in the Andrew Taylor series.

    • Helen says:

      I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it, Janette. It’s a really fascinating book, I just didn’t like it quite as much as some of the others I’ve read by Robert Harris.

  4. Elizabeth Bailey says:

    I’ve got this on my TBR and looking forward to reading it. I’ve not got into the alternative history or historical novels. I was gripped by Second Sleep, and then read the one about the election of a pope which I thought was brilliant. Hoping this one will be equally engaging. Harris certainly has the power to draw you into the story, so it will be interesting to see if he succeeds with this one with me.

    • Helen says:

      I was a bit disappointed in The Second Sleep, but I agree that the one about the pope, Conclave, was excellent. I hope you enjoy this book – although it’s not one of my favourites, the subject and setting are fascinating.

      • Cyberkitten says:

        I think I’d rank ‘Second Sleep’ as one of the worst books I’ve read in *years* [grin]. Still hasn’t put me off reading more of his though! ‘V-2’ is next on my list. I’ll get to it in the next month or so.

  5. FictionFan says:

    I’ll be reading this one soon so I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it even if it hasn’t become a favourite. I find him quite variable – I’ve loved a lot of his books, but found others too slow and concentrating too much on the history at the expense of the story if that makes sense.

    • Helen says:

      I’ll be interested to hear what you think of this one. I did enjoy it but I felt that it fell into the category you mention of ‘too much history at the expense of the story’. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve loved some of his other books so much that anything else is bound to pale in comparison!

  6. smellincoffee says:

    This one had an interesting premise, but the pace of the actual events did seriously curb the novel’s pace. Its setting in early colonial America was unique, though — everything else I’ve found is set in the 1760s-1780s for obvious reasons.

    • Helen says:

      The pace was definitely a problem. Having read other Harris novels, I’d expected it to be a lot more exciting than it was. But yes, the colonial setting was interesting – I can only think of one or two other books I’ve read set in that time and place.

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