Bound to Please / A Bloody Old World Dispute in a Verdant New World Setting

“They scouted out a place a little way off the road, where part of the riverbank had been eroded by the current to form a natural pool. Trees hung down almost to the surface. Someone had tied a rope to a branch to make a swing. A long green dragonfly … skimmed between the reeds. Wood pigeons cooed amid the foliage.”

Ned Whalley and his son-in-law Will Goffe have found the perfect spot for a dip. And they need it.

Robert Harris’ latest novel, “Act of Oblivion,” begins in July of 1660, on the day of their arrival in the New England colony of Massachusetts. The two men had been cooped up in a small wooden ship for the many weeks it took to cross the Atlantic Ocean back then.

“Was there any sensation more delicious than this — to wash stale salt off sweating skin in fresh water on a summer’s day? Praise God, praise God in all his glory, for bringing us in safety to this place! Ned flexed his toes in the soft mud.”

Harris paints an Edenic scene, but the dream isn’t meant to last. There are snakes in this paradise, most of them going about on two legs.

Ned and Will are not so innocent themselves.

“Act of Oblivion” is historical fiction, set in the aftermath of the English Civil War, which culminated in the overthrow of the monarchy and the 1649 beheading of King Charles I. The monarchy was restored when King Charles II took the throne in 1660. The book’s title comes from a general amnesty that was declared in an effort to make peace — but the amnesty specifically excluded the “regicides” who had played direct roles in the killing of the previous king.

Among the regicides now marked for death themselves are Ned and Will, who slip out of England as fugitives.

Massachusetts seems like a safe haven, but a royal official named Richard Nayler is on their trail. The story is a cat-and-mouse tale that plays out over immense distances.

Harris writes in an introductory note that Nayler is a fictitious character, but almost every other person to appear in the book really lived.

England and New England alike were characterized by deep and bloody religious divisions in that era. The Puritans, an austere Christian sect, held power during the years without a king, and they dominated Massachusetts even after the restoration. The local leaders provide fellow Puritans Ned and Will a warm and generous welcome, but these seemingly nice people also kept Massachusetts “pure” through such means as hanging Quakers.

Similarly, in a pivotal scene back in England, Nayler must deny being a “papist” when he and his wife are caught attending a Christmas service in a church that has — gasp! — decorations.

As Naylor pursues Ned and Will, it is possible to feel sympathy for all three of them, along with revulsion at the bloody violence through which they impose their good intentions. And whoever you feel like rooting for, they can’t all win.

The historical record is blank regarding the fate of at least one of the main characters. Harris imagines his own solution to that mystery.

As for why anyone would think that the God of tree-shaded river pools would want his people to hang and behead one another, that mystery remains unanswered.

Act of Oblivion

  • By Robert Harris
  • Hutchinson Heinemann, 463pp, £22