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Review: Act of Oblivion, by Robert Harris
Harper, 2022. 458 pp. $29

Two soldiers sail in 1660 from London to Boston under assumed names, because an act of Parliament has condemned them to death. Their crime? Former colonels in Oliver Cromwell’s revolutionary army—one is even the Great Protector’s cousin—signed the death warrant of the late king, Charles I.

Now, the regal son of the same name, restored to rule, seeks revenge on the fifty-nine who signed off on his father’s execution, despite a previous promise of amnesty. The Act of Oblivion has sealed the regicides’ fate.

The future Charles II in exile, painted in 1653 by Philippe de Champaigne (courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Colonel Ned Whalley, Cromwell’s cousin, and his son-in-law, Colonel Will Goffe, hope to find sanctuary with their Puritan brethren in the New World. But they have learned to lie low, understanding that the Crown has spies everywhere, and that their families in England are likely being watched.

Ned and Will don’t know half the danger they’re in. A clerk to the Privy Council, Richard Nayler, has both royalist sentiment driving him to see all the regicides executed and a personal animosity against these two men in particular.

Nayler’s colleagues in the manhunt respect his unrelenting energy and passion for the task, though they think he’s obsessed. Even they are unnerved by his complete lack of scruple. He makes a formidable enemy to Ned and Will.

Act of Oblivion is first-rate Harris, which says something after An Officer and a Spy, Dictator, and The Second Testament. The current novel offers an elegant premise, unremitting tension (our old friend, “no—and furthermore,” thrives in these pages), and an enthralling grasp of history and the contemporary physical surroundings involved in the tale.

These include Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the wild tracts of Connecticut, re-created as they appeared in the 1660s, as well as shipboard life, Puritan meeting houses, and London—stinking, plague-ridden, and overcrowded:

The Thames flowed past sluggishly barely a hundred yards away. The tide was out, exposing black humps of oozing mud streaked with green weed. In the hot sunshine, it reeked of the sea and of decay. Figures were picking through it in the hope of finding something they could use or sell. Gulls wheeled and cried above their heads, occasionally swooping down, settling for an instant and lifting off again.

Rest assured that the characters have received excellent authorial care as well, not to say strokes of genius. The two men on the run differ greatly and have many angles and corners. The English Civil War was fought for religious causes, among others, and as high-ranking officers in Cromwell’s Puritan forces, you could expect the fugitives to think and speak of God’s will constantly.

Nevertheless, Ned has lived long enough to temper his fervor with doubt about his own character and actions. Late in the novel, he muses that “God was not to be pressed into service to suit the needs of men, however righteous they believed their cause to be . . . such presumption itself was a sin.” He also realizes that the revolutionary he once was may not have known everything, and that Cromwell was no saint but a complex figure tempted by power.

Will, however, lacks his father-in-law’s self-reflection. He tosses off biblical quotations that presumably explain and predict their circumstances, as if to demonstrate that God has decided everything, so they don’t need to alter their plans. Consequently, he can be pigheaded about the divine support he’s certain they possess, or the need to take precautions.

So there’s plenty of conflict between the fugitives, who must naturally spend much time in one another’s company. And their diverging viewpoints force the reader to reckon with what radical political action means, and whether you can ever be confident that you’re doing right. As Ned recalls the back story of his military service, you see that rightness seldom appeared in black and white, no matter what anyone thought at the time.

Then there’s Nayler, who has no use for prayer and knows only his loyalties, not the passages in Scripture that supposedly justify them. I like that contrast, which I think is inspired. He’s a terrific foil for the godly regicides, especially when his associates urge him to leave off, already—order him to, even, at points. But you know he won’t relent. And when I tell you Nayler is willing to play the long game, that’s an understatement.

Meanwhile, Harris casts his keen eye on colonial New England and, especially, the various clerics who’ve led their flocks into that wilderness, hoping to be left alone. Good luck. Naturally, Ned and Will find out how long an arm the Crown has, with the older man grasping the danger first, and Will having to restrain his impulse to attend public prayer meetings with a price on his head.

Act of Oblivion is marvelous.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.