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Excerpt from Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris

Act of Oblivion

A Novel

by Robert Harris
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  • First Published:
  • Sep 13, 2022
  • Paperback:
  • Sep 2023
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Print Excerpt

At which Elizabeth – prettier and always grumbling about her chores – burst out, 'But it must be seven hours since his ship arrived, and it's only an hour to Boston.'

'Don't criticise your father,' said Mrs Gookin. 'If he is delayed, he'll have good reason.'

A few minutes later, Daniel called from outside, 'Someone's coming!'

They hurried out of the house, through the gate and onto the dried rutted mud of the road. Mrs Gookin squinted in the direction of the river. Her eyesight had worsened since her husband's departure. All she could make out was the dark shape of the ferry, like a water beetle, halfway across the bright ribbon of water. The boys were shouting, 'It's a cart! It's a cart! It's Papa in a cart!'

They dashed down the road to meet it, Nat's short legs pumping to keep up with his brothers.

'Is it really him?' asked Mrs Gookin, peering helplessly.

'It's him,' said Elizabeth. 'See – look – he's waving.'

'Oh, thank God.' Mrs Gookin fell to her knees. 'Thank God.'

'Yes, it's him,' repeated Mary, shielding her eyes from the sun, before adding, in a puzzled voice, 'but he has two men with him.'

In the immediate flurry of kisses and embraces, of tears and laughter, of children being tossed into the air and whirled around, the pair of strangers, who remained throughout politely seated in the back of the cart among the luggage, were at first ignored.

Daniel Gookin hoisted Nat up onto his shoulders, tucked Dan and Sam under either arm and ran with them around the yard, scattering the chickens, then turned his attention to the shrieking girls. Mary had forgotten how big her husband was, how handsome, how large a presence. She could not take her eyes off him.

Finally, Gookin set down the girls, placed his hand around her waist, whispered, 'There are men here you must meet; do not be alarmed,' and ushered her towards the cart. 'Gentlemen, I fear I have plain forgot my manners. Allow me to present my wife, the true Prudent Mary – in flesh and blood at last.'

A pair of weather-beaten, ragged-bearded heads turned to examine her. Hats were lifted to reveal long, matted hair. They wore buff leather overcoats, caked with salt, and high-sided scuffed brown boots. As they stood, somewhat stiffly, the thick leather creaked and Mary caught a whiff of sea and sweat and mildew, as if they had been fished up from the bed of the Atlantic.

'Mary,' continued Gookin, 'these are two good friends of mine, who shared the crossing with me – Colonel Edward Whalley, and his son-in-law, Colonel William Goffe.'

Whalley said, 'Indeed it is a pleasure to meet you, Mrs Gookin.'

She forced a smile and glanced at her husband – two colonels? – but already he had withdrawn his hand and was moving to help the pair down from the cart. She noticed how deferential he was in their presence, and how when they put their feet to the ground after so many weeks at sea, both men swayed slightly, and laughed, and steadied one another. The children gawped.

Colonel Goffe, the younger one, said, 'Let us give thanks for our deliverance.' Beneath his beard he had a fine, keen, pious face; his voice carried a musical lilt. He held up his hands, palms flat, and cast his eyes to the heavens. The Gookin family quickly wrenched their fascinated gaze from him and lowered their heads. 'We remember Psalm One Hundred and Seven. "O that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men! They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters. These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep." Amen.'


'And who do we have here?' asked Colonel Whalley. He moved along the line of children, collecting their names. At the end, he pointed to each in turn. 'Mary. Elizabeth. Daniel. Sam. Nathaniel. Very good. I am Ned, and this is Will.'

Excerpted from Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris. Copyright © 2022 by Robert Harris. Excerpted by permission of Harper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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