Harris’s 2022 novel Act of Oblivion is yet another bestseller, and justifiably so.
begins in 1660, after Charles II has been proclaimed king (the Restoration). In
the new regime those involved in the trial and execution of Charles I are
hunted by the regicide committee of the Privy Council and ‘brought to justice’,
charged with regicide. A small number of individuals have fled to the
Continent; two, however, have sought sanctuary in the other direction, the
American colonies: Colonel Edward (Ned) Whalley and his son-in-law Colonel
Nayler, secretary of the regicide committee has his personal reasons to hound
Whalley and Goffe. The majority of individuals in the novel existed; Nayler is
an exception, though it’s highly likely somebody like him did exist. ‘… a most
useful shadow; a shadow who causes things to happen’ (p41).
Act of Oblivion of 1660 effectively pardoned everyone who had committed crimes
during the English Civil War (1642-1649) with a few heinous exceptions,
particularly those individuals named in the actual death of Charles I. The
Interregnum was to be legally forgotten. Unfortunately, ‘There is no end to it.
Only four men were to die for murdering the King. Then we found records of the
trial… and the four became eight, then twelve and now there are dozens of them’
story and much of the hunt takes place in Massachusetts, New Haven,
Connecticut, Germany, France, and London. Harris conveys the period with deft
visual word-strokes that put the reader in the scene, amidst the squalor of
London and the strangely beguiling New World, as well as the sinister dark
panelled recesses of powerful men.
destitute of London, mere bundles of rags, crouched in the shadows of the
walls. Wounded veterans, missing limbs and hobbling on crutches, swung
themselves between the graves. A fearful, horrid place, it seemed to him, more
a prison than a hospital. It reminded him of his long period of sickness after
Naseby, and the gaol where he was kept after his wife had died’ (p80).
does not flinch from showing the appalling graphic beastliness of the time,
notably when Nayler is tasked by the Lord Chancellor Hyde with exhuming the
corpse of Cromwell. Nayler is not keen on the ‘foul work’: ‘Since when did that
deter you? The idea is certainly not mine, believe me. But Parliament commands
it, and really, Mr Nayler, if you cannot find any more living regicides to
bring to justice, you might as well at least employ yourself in hanging the
dead’ (p121). On 30 January Cromwell’s body and two others were hanged in view
of thousands of witnesses and towards the day’s end decapitated, their heads
impaled on poles above Westminster Hall, the trunks tipped into a common grave.
are many instances where Harris’s descriptions put the reader in the scene. ‘No
sun tempered the iron frost, just the occasional flurry of snow and a grey sky
so heavy it seemed to press all the colour from the buildings. Time itself felt
frozen’ (p17). And of course much of their time in hiding would be like that,
empty days blending together…
‘… stood in the water, inhaling the peace of
the wood, the scent of the pine resin, the cooing of the pigeons, the gentle
splash of the flow over the stones. Midges swirled above the surface, like dust
thrown into a shaft of sunlight; occasionally a fish rose to a mayfly’ (p226).
[Though he couldn’t inhale cooing and splashing of water; a semi-colon missing,
waves breaking on the shore made a sound no louder than an intake of breath, followed
by a long withdrawing sigh’ (p313).
his investigations in Holland, Nayler encounters ‘the Blackamoor, a ship of the Royal Africa Company, owned by the Duke
of York, that lay moored in Rotterdam’ (p273). A topical reminder concerning
the slave trade of the period. One regicide, Sir John Lisle, was living under
the pseudonym of Mr Field in Switzerland. [Coincidentally, a character in recently
reviewed Michael Connelly’s The Black
Echo, Billy Meadows, used the pseudonym Fields!] Nayler’s thirst for
vengeance acknowledged no obstacles…
was the time when New Amsterdam was taken from the Dutch and became New York (pp323,
357) which would mean war between the two nations.
their lengthy periods of hiding the two fugitive regicides dwell on the past,
in particular their association with Cromwell: ‘One could never be sure with
Oliver. Ambition and godliness, self-interest and the higher cause, the base
metal entwined with the gold’ (p342).
covered in the story are the terrible Black Death and the Great Fire of London;
both well realised.
is a gripping book about an unrelenting manhunt right up to the last two pages.
writing and storytelling!
minor quibble, which I appreciate as a writer: the book is in four parts –
Hunt, 1660; Chase, 1661; Hide, 1662; and Kill, 1674. Yet (inevitably) those
dates are exceeded by the storyline; for example on p308 (Hide) it is 1664, and
of course the Plague and Fire were in 1666; perhaps inclusive dates would have
been more appropriate.
vs Book. I’m pleased to see that as the book is broken into parts, the chapter
numbering continues. In some books, when instead of Part, the divisions are
referred to as Books , in some of these cases the chapter numbering still
continues. Logically, in my view, if a book is broken into Parts, the chapter
numbering continues; if it is broken into Books, then each Book begins with a
History lesson for POTUS Biden:
two principal New York boroughs were King’s (for King Charles) and Queen’s (for
Queen Catherine); while the first is now Brooklyn, the second has retained its
English royal name. The Duke of York granted control of the land between the
Hudson and Delaware rivers to John, Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret. They
named the land ‘New Jersey’ after the island of Jersey in the English Channel
where Carteret was born. Shortly after the Restoration Charles II granted a
wide tract of North America to a group of nobles who founded the colony of
Carolina (from the Latin form of their monarch’s name) and its capital was