Act of Oblivion

Written by Robert Harris
Review by Alan Bardos

This novel tells the story of the hunt for the regicides of Charles I, principally Edward Whalley and his son-in-law, William Goffe. Whalley and Goffe fled to America after the restoration of Charles II and the passing of the Act of Oblivion. The Act was intended to help reconciliation between the Roundheads and Cavaliers, pardoning crimes committed during the English Civil War and Cromwell’s subsequent reign, with the obvious exception of the execution of Charles I. The regicides are relentlessly pursued by the fictional Richard Nayler, the secretary of the regicide committee, who has very personal reasons for wanting to hunt down Whalley and Goffe. His hunt takes him to the edge of the known world and spans decades, long after their crimes have been forgotten. At times Nayler’s relentless pursuit takes on aspects of a Western, set on the east coast of America, right up to the final showdown.

This is a very opportune novel to read at the start of Charles III’s rule, exploring why Britain has a constitutional monarchy as a result of the actions of his predecessors who bore his name. Like all the very best historical fiction, Harris’s novel both entertains and informs. He expertly brings together a number of story strands that encompass the seismic events which shaped Britain and the culture war between the Puritan Roundheads and the hedonistic Cavaliers. Harris doesn’t shy away from showing a “warts and all” portrayal of both sides, which has moulded the competing parts of the British character ever since, and was subsequently exported to America. If, like for me, this novel sparks your interest in the English Civil War, I would also recommend Jemahl Evans’s Sir Blandford Candy series.