I would not normally review a work of fiction on the blog but am happy to make an exception for Robert Harris's latest novel Act of Oblivion. It is a historo-fiction set in 'my period' as the purchaser, Mrs H described it. I have little time for fiction these days with other overlapping commitments, but decided to make the effort and consume this as quickly as possible. I like Harris's writing having read several of his other works and got into this book from page 1.
It is an extremely readable, meticulously researched insight into the world but chiefly England in the period between 1642 and 1679. In particular, it follows the fortunes of two historical regicides, Colonels William Goffe and Edward Whalley as they flee the long and extremely vengeful arm of the restored monarchy. The avenger in chief is the only fictional character in the book, a Royalist officer turned 'detective and hunter' - Richard Nayler.
The explanations, detailed PoVs and attitudes of both sides turned the protagonists into equally dislikable groups. I found it possible to have empathy with the causes and feelings of both sides whilst simultaneously being repulsed by each. In the end, I found my views around organized religious practice hardening significantly despite or perhaps, because of, the insights provided by the author.
Plot spoilers will not be offered by me, but simply Google-searching Goffe and Whalley will tell you anything you need to know from the historical perspective. That will however take nothing from the narrative of the book.
Whether it is the fetid, overcrowded streets of London, the intolerably cramped conditions on a seventy day ship journey to the Americas or the pristine, start-again, vastness of New England, Harris is able to put you at the centre of the sensory experience.
The Puritan idyll of New England, Harvard College and the settlements on the Connecticut River were alluring to unpack but also for me, at least, they grew increasingly sinister and 1984-esque. The colonies action left me with a wider perspective on why perhaps, religion remains more important in the New World than in the Old. I do not think those reasons are particularly enabling to humanity.
The politics mirror 21st century life in their cynical pragmatism versus ideological tension and the grand figures such as Cromwell, Ireton, Fairfax, Hyde, The King and his court are humanized whilst at the same time made vulnerable and small by their own motivations, desires and personality idiosyncrasies. Humans in power -An omnipresent and disturbing state of affairs.
I thoroughly recommend this highly readable, balanced look at our past set in a dramatic context.
I would perhaps have ideologically sided with the Republicans but been emotionally drawn to the Royalists. In the end, I found myself torn by a violent and polarized dislike of each for different reasons.
If I had possessed the wherewithal and found myself alive at the time, I would have sought out an opportunity to be a hermit.