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Reviews of Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris

Act of Oblivion

A Novel

by Robert Harris

Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris X
Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Sep 2022, 480 pages

    Sep 2023, 480 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Maria Katsulos
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About this Book

Book Summary

From the bestselling author of Fatherland, The Ghostwriter, Munich, and Conclave comes this spellbinding historical novel that brilliantly imagines one of the greatest manhunts in history: the search for two Englishmen involved in the killing of King Charles I and the implacable foe on their trail - an epic journey into the wilds of seventeenth-century New England, and a chase like no other.

"From what is it they flee?"

He took a while to reply. By the time he spoke the men had gone inside. He said quietly, "They killed the King."

1660 England. General Edward Whalley and his son-in law Colonel William Goffe board a ship bound for the New World. They are on the run, wanted for the murder of King Charles I—a brazen execution that marked the culmination of the English Civil War, in which parliamentarians successfully battled royalists for control.

But now, ten years after Charles' beheading, the royalists have returned to power. Under the provisions of the Act of Oblivion, the fifty-nine men who signed the king's death warrant and participated in his execution have been found guilty in absentia of high treason. Some of the Roundheads, including Oliver Cromwell, are already dead. Others have been captured, hung, drawn, and quartered. A few are imprisoned for life. But two have escaped to America by boat.

In London, Richard Nayler, secretary of the regicide committee of the Privy Council, is charged with bringing the traitors to justice and he will stop at nothing to find them. A substantial bounty hangs over their heads for their capture—dead or alive...

Robert Harris's first historical novel set predominantly in America, Act of Oblivion is a novel with an urgent narrative, remarkable characters, and an epic true story to tell of religion, vengeance, and power—and the costs to those who wield it.

Part One


Chapter One

IF YOU HAD set out in the summer of 1660 to travel the four miles from Boston to Cambridge, Massachusetts, the first house you would have come to after crossing the Charles River would have been the Gookins'. It stood beside the road on the southern edge of the small settlement, just past the creek, midway across the marshy land between the river and Harvard College – a confident, two-storey timbered property in its own fenced lot with an attic in its steep roof commanding a clear view of the Charles. That year, the colony was building its first bridge across the river. Thick wooden piles were being driven into the mud close to the ramp where the ferryboat ran. The sound of hammering and sawing and the shouts of the workmen drifted up to the house on the drowsy midsummer air.

On this particular day – Friday 27 July – the front door was flung wide open, and a childish sign reading Welcome Home had been nailed to the gatepost. A passing ...

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BookBrowse Review


Harris's choice to switch points of view between the colonels and Nayler works well for several reasons and gives the book its unique, humanizing flair. The technique allows him to make full use of both England and the American colonies as settings; between the multiple storylines, it is practically impossible for readers to get bored or guess what is coming next. During the London chapters, Harris adds another narrator — Frances Goffe, Whalley's daughter and William Goffe's wife. The author gives full access to the inner thoughts of all these characters, painting a fuller picture of the plot and people involved. This is the main advantage of Harris's approach: The story is all about the two sides of a war and the ways people on each side justify their actions. Beyond heinous acts of wartime violence, all of the male narrators also engage in torture and murder during supposed peacetime. Yet Harris depicts even scenes of violence with a poetic description that makes reading Act of Oblivion like watching a movie; everything springs from the page to the imagination...continued

Full Review (590 words)

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(Reviewed by Maria Katsulos).

Media Reviews

Minneapolis Star Tribune
Harris delivers a gripping, well-paced tale rich in color, suspense and adventure.

The Washington Post
Veteran actor Tim McInnerny delivers a masterly narration of Harris's novel. He truly inhabits the characters, his voice and manner finely tuned to the personality and convictions of each: Goffe, a fanatical, millenarian Puritan; Whalley, more practical and ultimately disillusioned; Nayler, smoothly menacing, but prey to depression ... this production is perfect.

The Times (UK)
Act of Oblivion is a belter of a thriller. It will be compulsive reading for those who loved An Officer and a Spy, Harris's book about the Dreyfus affair. Like that novel, the research is immaculate. A chewy, morally murky slice of history is made into a thriller that twists and surprises. The characters are strong and we care about their predicament. The story stretches over continents and years, but the suspense feels as taut as if the three main characters were locked in a room with a gun.

Financial Times
A gripping revenger's tale... . This is by far Harris's best book since An Officer and a Spy, which dealt with another great national division: the Dreyfus case. He has produced a ripping page-turner that breathes all the complexities and moral nuances of the Civil War period.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
[A] gripping historical thriller...The deeply researched story is the author's brilliant reimagining of real historical events, with sympathetic characters and a compelling plot. Thoroughly enjoyable with some cringeworthy descriptions. Readers will not pine for days of yore.

It will come as no surprise to readers familiar with Harris' work that this is a splendidly written historical novel. Harris really is a joy to read...Another top-flight effort from a master storyteller.

Library Journal
[Harris] demonstrates his talent for bringing history to life with a taut new tale of faith and vengeance... . the raw emotions of the characters and the issues that drive human dissent make this a worthwhile read.

Publishers Weekly
Harris again turns a historical event into a canny page-turner...[and] brings to life an obscure chapter in colonial American history. This further burnishes Harris's reputation as a talented author of historical suspense.

Author Blurb Matthew Pearl, New York Times bestselling author of The Dante Club and The Taking of Jemima Boone
Robert Harris brings his signature storytelling power to an exciting manhunt through colonial America. Act of Oblivion pulls off historical fiction's greatest challenge, transporting readers into the heart of a formative era with momentum and suspense. A twisty labyrinth of espionage and intrigue.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

The Execution of Charles I

Black-and-white illustration of Charles I making a speech on the scaffold before his execution When it comes to the execution of English royalty, perhaps the most famous are the two wives of Henry VIII who met their ends at the Tower of London — Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. The double execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette by guillotine in France is equally if not more famous, and countless other royals have been killed by their enemies. However, only one reigning King of England has ever been publicly executed for treason: Charles I, or Charles Stuart, in 1649. This crucial event precedes the main plot in Robert Harris's Act of Oblivion.

Charles was the second son of James VI of Scotland (also James I of England) and Anne of Denmark. Charles's older brother, Henry, was primed to be the next king but fell ill ...

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