The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell: A Memoir
You might not know the whole story, but you probably know the big strokes. One motivated man took down the British monarchy and instituted his own brand of justice and order across the land as Lord Protector. After his death, he was exhumed, decapitated, and his head mounted on a spike for all to see. Little did you suspect, that was only the beginning.
The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell is an exceptionally well-researched and thoughtful look at an influential figure in history and how he might’ve reacted to the many events that followed his rise and fall. The idea that Cromwell’s spirit continued to observe the world through the eyes of his severed head is a fascinating one, and it provided a storytelling perspective quite unlike anything I’d read before. (The closest example of a similar narrator that comes to mind? Newton’s Principia Mathematica in James Morrow’s wonderful novel The Last Witchfinder.)
Cromwell proves to be an engaging voice. Biased, opinionated, curious, and clever, Cromwell allows the reader deep insight into the decision-making and dubious morality that guided his choices in life, and through him, we ponder how he might’ve changed with decades of perspective granted by death. As Cromwell’s head passes from owner to owner and he encounters a few historical icons along the way, Hartzman cagily comments on both the past and present through Cromwell’s eyes.
As for those historical cameos, each serves a purpose and develops the story in meaningful ways. What could have easily descended into an upper-crust version of Forrest Gump instead feels like a history lesson on British culture through unexpected eyes.
Hartzman includes many annotations and notes in the back clarifying biographical and historical references made by Cromwell, offering readers the chance to learn more without disrupting the novel’s flow. You can easily enjoy Cromwell’s narrative without further research, but the door is left open for those who want a full sense of Cromwell’s perspective on a given topic or historical moment.
And Cromwell’s charm, despite his many flaws and great misdeeds while alive, will easily carry any readers less common with that period in British history. In fact, that charm makes the ending of the book that much more effective. Although the novel ended the only way it could, I was saddened by the passing of that last page, because Cromwell was an able and entertaining guide.
The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell is historical fiction done with grace, style, and ingenuity. (I haven’t even mentioned the absolutely stunning cover.) What an unexpected treat.
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