Robert Harris’s Act of Oblivion is historical fiction at its best

British novelist Robert Harris, author of Fatherland, Enigma, Pompeii and others, is back with another masterful work of historical fiction in Act of Oblivion (2022).

Set in the aftermath of England’s bitter Civil War (1642-1651) between Parliamentarians (Roundheads) and Royalists (Cavaliers) over the manner of England’s governance and issues of religious freedom and the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1860, the novel revolves around attempts to hunt down and punish the “regicides” who were responsible for the execution of King Charles I in 1649.

While the Act of Oblivion — full title “An Act of Free and General Pardon, Indemnity, and Oblivion” — was a general pardon for everyone who had committed crimes during the Civil War, it called for the apprehension and execution of the fifty-nine people named in the act as those who ordered the execution of Charles I.

This is where Harris the storyteller takes over.

Calling his work an imaginative re-creation of a true story, Harris tells the story of a fictitious manhunter named Richard Nayler who pursues two regicides, Edward Whalley and William Goffe, who have fled to New England to escape persecution. While Nayler is fictitious, Whalley and Goffe are real characters.

Two Puritans who fought alongside Oliver Cromwell during the Civil War, Whalley and Goffe remain unfazed in their belief that the execution of Charles I was justified, and that the restoration of Charles II will be short-lived.

As wanted men, the two have to go underground finding refuge in the homes of sympathetic colonists and New England governors and clergymen. They also spend a great deal of time living rough in the wilderness.

To be sure, the two regicides are intolerable hardcore Puritans who believed that only the elect would go to heaven, that their aggressively righteous ends justified their often-ruthless means, and that the world would end in 1666. If this sounds familiar, Whalley and Goffe bear a striking resemblance to the insufferable members of the American Evangelical Christian Right who have garnered so much undue influence in American politics in recent decades with their talk of authoritarian theocracy and the Rapture.

Readers are torn between siding with the two resourceful regicides and their dogged pursuer. But unfortunately, they know the novel is not going to end well for any of the characters. Add to this a bit of a surprise ending, and readers should come away feeling satisfied.

Harris has assembled a highly readable novel with enough twists and turns to keep readers turning the pages. Highly recommended.

Act of Oblivion is now available at all leading bookstores.

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