When Charles II was restored to the throne from which his father had been removed he wanted to take revenge on those who had taken any part in the proceedings which had resulted in killing the king. This is the background for Robert Harris’ historical novel Act of Oblivion. The author novelises the true story of two men who fled from the new king to the newly settled colonies in America where they expected to fit in with the Puritans and non-conformists who were making a new life there and escape the vengeance of those now in power. He also adds the character of a man fuelled by vengeance who hunts the men who judged, imprisoned and killed the king’s father. This novel follows both the hunted and the hunter whilst also exploring the fate of those left behind in Britain who are under a cloud of suspicion and those trying to make a good life in America.
This is an excellently researched historical novel which reads like a thriller. The author tries to portray what it is like to be hunted for years or to be the person who is determined to carry on searching for fugitives even after others have lost interest. The author also takes time to explain the beliefs and ways of life of the colonists and why they are so often at odds with their visitors and with each other. The saddest parts of the story are where the author talks about those left in England who don’t know what is happening, who have lost their wealth and possessions, and who live in fear of being arrested or tortured – they know also that it is unlikely that they will ever see their loved ones again.
Because religious convictions play such a large part in these events the author has to show the reader why the characters feel the way that they do and how their faith affects their actions. I thought that this was done particularly well and that the author was respectful of those with strong beliefs.
The story shifts viewpoint between the main characters but also to others who are on the edge of the story such as the children of those who are hiding the fugitives. The minor characters are well developed and important to the plot and the glimpse we get into their lives enhances the overall story for me. This book is beautifully crafted and the author brings it to a great conclusion.
This is a compelling novel which is very much based on true stories and many real people (there is a long author’s note at the end explaining exactly what is and is not established fact). A few years ago I read Killers of the King by Charles Spencer which talked about the fate of these men and how they tried, and often failed, to escape capture and if this story interests you it may be worth looking for a copy of that book.
Robert Harris is an author whose books I have always enjoyed and I think that Act of Oblivion is definitely one of his best. You can find my review of V2 here, Pompeii here, Conclave here, The Second Sleep here, Munich here, Ghost here and An Officer and a Spy here – all of these are excellent novels and well worth reading.
2 thoughts on “The hunter and the hunted – a great historical novel”
A great review Anne. I loved this book too and especially enjoyed the setting in an almost unhabited America. I’ve just got Killers of the King from the library so I’m looking forward to reading that one next.
It’s nowhere near as easy a read but the subject matter is fascinating
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