John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

This book has been on my TBR since it was published in 2012; I couldn’t get into it at the time, so put it aside to try again later, not really intending ‘later’ to be nearly ten years later! Anyway, although I had one or two problems with it I’m pleased to have read it at last and am now interested in reading more of Lawrence Norfolk’s novels, all of which sound intriguing.

John Saturnall’s Feast begins in a place called Buckland, a small village where John Sandall lives with his mother, a herbalist and midwife. It’s the early 17th century, a time when women with skills like these risk being accused of witchcraft – and this is what happens to John’s mother. Finding themselves the target of their Puritan neighbours and the fanatical preacher Marpot, they flee to the safety of nearby Buccla’s Wood. Here, John continues to receive an education from his mother, who teaches him to read from a book of ancient recipes and reveals to him the secrets of a traditional Feast which have been passed down through the generations.

When John’s mother dies, leaving him an orphan, he is taken into the kitchens of Buckland Manor, where he impresses the other cooks with his knowledge of food. At the Manor, we meet Lady Lucretia, the young daughter of Sir William Fremantle. A marriage has been arranged for Lucretia, in order for her to inherit the estate, but she has chosen to defy her father by refusing to eat. Can John Sandall – now known as John Saturnall, Master Cook – create a dish that will tempt her from her fast?

This is an unusual and complex novel; I have simplified the plot in the paragraphs above, but there is a lot more to it than that and I would probably need to read the book again to fully appreciate all the different layers of the story. I don’t think I quite understood the significance of the ritual of the Feast, for example – was it intended as a myth, an allegory or something real? I felt that important plot points and details were sometimes getting lost beneath the overwhelming descriptions of ingredients, smells, tastes and colours that filled almost every page. I also struggled to keep track of the characters; there are so many of them, particularly working in the kitchens, and none of them are very strongly drawn, so I found it difficult to distinguish one from another.

I did really enjoy the first half of the book, which describes John’s childhood in Buckland and the events that lead to his arrival at the Manor. The portrayal of his life in the kitchens – the huge, subterranean network of rooms, the heat, the smells, the sounds, and the complex social hierarchy that exists between the cooks and the humble kitchen hands – is vivid and fascinating. I was reminded very strongly of Abiatha Swelter’s kitchens in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books! In the second half of the novel, though, there’s a change of scene and pace as civil war breaks out in England and John and his friends exchange the kitchen for the battlefield. There seemed to be very little build up to this and I felt that the war chapters didn’t really add much to the overall story.

Although not every aspect of this book was a success with me, the wonderful atmosphere and the imaginative plot still kept me turning the pages. I would like to try one of Lawrence Norfolk’s other three books, so if you have read any of them please let me know what you thought!

Book 19/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

9 thoughts on “John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

  1. Calmgrove says:

    I’ve only read Lemprière’s Dictionary (which was, I think, his break-out book) and that was so long ago I have only vague memories of what it was about; in fact I’d be interested to read it again. Your description of this makes it sound equally mysterious as to the author’s intentions.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks – Lemprière’s Dictionary is probably the one I’ll try next, so it’s good to know that you would be prepared to read it again, even if you’ve forgotten the details of it. I think all of his books sound quite mysterious; I certainly don’t feel that I really understood what he was trying to say in this one.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    I remember starting The Pope’s Rhinoceros several years ago, which should have been right up my alley, but finding it a bit dense. It may just have been that I wasn’t in the right mood for it at the time. Hearing what you say about John Saturnall’s Feast has whetted my curiosity – it sounds as if he is just slightly inscrutable as a writer. Perhaps it’s time to give Norfolk another go?

    • Helen says:

      That’s a shame – The Pope’s Rhinoceros sounds so interesting! Maybe, as you say, it was just the wrong time for you and it could still be worth giving Norfolk another try.

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