By Toby Young
The year is 1660. The Act of Oblivion has been passed. Charles II has been restored as King of England after a decade of puritan rule by Oliver Cromwell. In the midst of this political upheaval, the question of what to do with the 51 men who signed the death warrant of Charles I remains unanswered. Until the Act of Oblivion.
This is the backdrop to Robert Harris’ fifteenth novel, an explosive dive into late 17th century England; a journey that will cross continents and challenge faiths.
The story explores two viewpoints. First, that of the fugitives Whalley and Goffe, both former officers in Cromwell’s army. The second is Richard Nayler, a member of the “regicides committee”, the group set up to hunt down the remaining regicides under the terms of the Act of Oblivion, a real law which pardoned all republicans except for those whose signatures appeared on the death warrant of Charles I.
The character of Nayler is Robert Harris’ creation. However, Harris explains, “I suspect such a man was real; you cannot sustain a manhunt without a manhunter.” Aside from Nayler, all the other characters in the book are real. This is very much a true story, which makes what follows all the more shocking.
The novel begins in America, with the protagonists (or antagonists depending on your viewpoint) Colonel Whalley and Colonel Goffe arriving to stay with Puritan supporters. They are haggard after weeks at sea and still reeling from their loss, and the separation of their families.
The worst is yet to come.
Meanwhile, Nayler is frantically searching for their whereabouts whilst dealing with the other 49 regicides. What follows is a monumental tour-de-force; a story that you will never forget.
Nayler quickly picks up the scent and we learn he has a vested interest; his wife died as a result of rough handling by Whalley and Goffe. Nayler travels to America to find the fugitives. In the midst of this, Whalley and Goffe have settled into American life. They practice their Puritan faith among friends in ignorance of the firestorm that is to cloud the next 18 years of their lives.
Although it may seem impossible to squeeze an 18-year story which covers war, plague, and the Great Fire of London into 460 pages, Harris pulls it off so that the journey through time never feels rushed. The reader feels utterly immersed in the story and the characters grow and develop in line with the passing of time.
Interspersed into the narrative are various flashbacks to the sequence of events leading to the execution of Charles I. The first of these comes from Nayler’s recollection of the execution itself. Harris beautifully describes the scene, giving the reader everything they need to picture and experience such a monumental historical moment. There is no careless exposition here, and everything that needs to be explained is done with exceptional nuance and respect for history.
Harris’ skills become brutal upon his description of the executions of the first 13 regicides. He describes the killings in vivid detail, shocking the reader as to how such a thing could, just 400 years ago, be watched and cheered by the public. Especially poignant was his description of how “Fathers lifted their children onto their shoulders for a better view.”
At no point, however, does Harris bore with the history. Although this novel is as informative as any documentary, it is just that; a novel. The character development is second to none, as shown in the change of heart from Cromwell’s cousin, Edward Whalley.
Whalley begins as a pious and ruthless military commander. He’s a religious fanatic obsessed, as all Puritans in the novel are, with the idea of a Christian republic of England – a land where God rules supreme.
As the novel goes on, Whalley begins to write a memoir of his life before the restoration. Yet, the façade begins to crack. The mask of religious extremism slips and beneath we see a fragile man; sympathetic to the king whom he helped to kill and remorseful of the dictatorial way in which Charles I was deposed. His development is excellent and he becomes a very likeable character towards the end of the book. His son-in-law, Goffe, remains a Puritan throughout.
Harris doesn’t take sides in his narrative. He explains Puritan and royalist viewpoints accurately and leaves the reader to make their minds up. On the one hand, we have a dysfunctional and morally corrupt monarchy, trying to find its feet in England which had been deprived of a king for a decade. On the other, the radical beliefs of religious purists. You may find your sympathies lie with characters you would never normally align with.
As the hunt goes on and the fugitives continue to evade Nayler, the novel slows down into its fourth part and perhaps lacks pace. Without an active chase, the narrative lacks focus and direction, although perhaps this simply reflects the position of Whalley and Goffe; hiding basement to basement, never showing their faces and keeping to themselves. The sense of isolation is overwhelming.
Harris describes a profoundly sad situation where Whalley and Goffe are stuck 3,000 miles from home, their families none-the-wiser as to their state. Regardless of your opinion of their religious belief, you cannot help but feel their situation is dire.
The years between 1666-1672 are explained in letters between the continents. The plague and the fire of London are explained from both perspectives; from those in London (Nayler and Goffe’s wife, Francis) and in America. Harris explains the impact the hunt has had on the innocents; on the families of the regicides, condemned to live a life of misery for the crimes of their husbands and fathers.
The novel comes to a head when Nayler finally picks up the scent again, 18 years after the hunt began. The ending is both beautiful and shocking.
If you have the chance to read this masterpiece, then count yourself lucky; it isn’t often that a novel of this calibre is produced. Other than a slowing down of the narrative towards the end, I really have very little to say against this book. Reading it was an absolute joy.
Put simply, the Act of Oblivion is as close to perfect as you can get.
Interested? Well, we’ve got more books similar to the Act of Oblivion to keep you occupied through term time!
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