Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris Critique – A Master Writer Takes Us on a 17th Century Manhunt | Robert Harris

Jhere is a passage from Vasily Grossman life and fate in which the author imagines the parallel lives of a man and his murderer. “If one man is destined to be killed by another,” he writes, “it would be interesting to trace the gradual convergence of their paths. At the beginning, they may be miles apart… and yet in the end we inevitably meet, we can’t do without…” This is the idea that drives Robert’s latest novel Harris, act of forgettingwhich, despite being set in the 17th century, sends the reader on a thoroughly enjoyable and thoroughly modern manhunt that weaves its way between Restoration-era London and the wilderness of pre-New England. -revolutionary.

The 1652 act of forgetting the title was the edict following the fall of the English Commonwealth which pardoned all who took up arms against the king except those who took direct part in the execution of Charles I. Many of these would-be regicides are already dead – Cromwell himself had died two years before the Restoration in 1660. But one of the most important names on the decree that sealed Charles’ fate was that of Colonel Edward Whalley , a cousin and childhood friend. of Cromwell who fled to America with his son-in-law, another regicide, Colonel Will Goffe.

act of forgetting is a book full of illuminating details that bring the past to life. While the language is modern, the book is textured by the friction of scraping wigs and rough leather boots; the wounds of the brutal Civil War are still visible on the men’s bodies and in the undercurrents of partisan sentiment, which means that even in America Whalley and Goffe cannot be sure of their welcome. One of the things that gives this book such a sound of authenticity is that Harris built his novel almost entirely from factual material. The words can be imagined, but the plot architecture and the identities of the vast majority of its characters are drawn from Harris’ extensive research.

The only character he invented is the deformed and vengeful manhunter, Richard Nayler, who is motivated by both personal and political motives to hunt down Whalley and Goffe. He carries with him a handkerchief soaked in the blood of the dead king. “The martyr’s blood had dried over the years to a faded rust color. Maybe one day he would disappear. But while he existed, Nayler had sworn to do everything in his power to avenge the events of that January day. Nayler is part detective, part monster, leading others to wonder, “What makes him run so hard?” The response is a mixture of thwarted ambition, resentment, and above all the loss of Sarah, his great love, following his imprisonment by the Roundheads. It was Whalley and Goffe who ordered his arrest, and he will stop at nothing to find them.

Meanwhile, we follow the tumultuous paths of fugitives in New England’s Puritan communities. Both left families in England and their stories are also woven into the narrative, particularly that of Frances, Goffe’s wife. The men are not young – Whalley is in his sixties, Goffe in his early forties – and life for the fugitives is not easy. Goffe misses his young family, a bond with England that he is unable to break, a touching element of humanity that completes this otherwise severe figure.

‘The wounds of the brutal civil war are still visible on men’s bodies’: the execution of Charles I in Whitehall, London, 1649. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the challenges of writing about this period is that the intricacies of religious faith and faction can seem distant and arcane to modern audiences. Goffe is a religious man – he had wanted to become a minister before the war – but Harris is undeterred by the intricacies of Christian doctrine. On the contrary, he makes a larger point about the position of the colonels in New England: the simplicity of their faith and their anti-monarchical sentiment find a natural home among the Dissenters and Puritans of the New World. The impulses which would animate the revolution in a hundred years were all there in the English Civil War. That doesn’t mean, alas, that men get off easy in Massachusetts.

As Nayler arrives in America, the pace of the novel quickens, the sense of an inevitable encounter propelling the narrative forward. Chapters, paragraphs, even sentences get shorter as the colonels seek to escape their single-minded pursuer. As always with Harris, there’s a delightful feeling of being in the hands of a master, watching the pieces of the narrative puzzle fall into place. act of forgetting is a beautiful novel about a divided nation, about invisible wounds that heal more slowly than visible ones. Like Ishiguro The Buried Giantit feels like an important book for our particular historical moment, one that shows the power of forgiveness and the intolerable burden of long-held grudges.

act of forgetting by Robert Harris is published by Cornerstone (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply