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John Saturnall’s Feastby Lawrence Norfolk

I’ve taken my time reading John Saturnall’s feast, the latest novel by Lawrence Norfolk. He’s a man that takes his time to write his novels, having published just four in twenty one years, and so I’ve done the same in reading his latest book, taking a month to wend my way through.

I remember reading his first novel Lemprière’s Dictionary shortly after its publication in 1991, and found it enthralling, but equally maddening; its style is dense, unashamedly intellectual, and it required some perseverance. It was, however, impeccably researched and full of historical detail bringing parts of the 17th & 18th centuries to life in its wide scope in the fictional imagining of the story behind the real classical dictionary published by Lemprière in 1788. I was reading and loving Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose at around the same time. Those who have enjoyed Eco may well find Lawrence Norfolk’s books to their taste too.  So back to JSF…

John Saturnall’s Feast starts in 1625 when Susan Sandall, a healer/midwife and her son are driven from their village, Susan being accused of witchcraft. They take refuge in Buccla’s wood, and as time goes by Susan tells John about the secret Feast handed down through the generations.

Winter comes, and Susan doesn’t survive; John does, together with his learned memory of the Feast.  He is taken on as a kitchen boy at Buckland Manor ancestral seat of the Fremantles, changing his surname to Saturnall. The cook, Master Scovell recognises something in John, and under his tutelage, John rises through the ranks from the lowliest scullery boy to become a cook capable of the finest cuisine of the age.

The Lady Lucretia is the only child of Sir William Fremantle, and it getting close to the time she should be married. She goes on hunger strike, and it falls to John to prepare dishes to tempt her to eat. It would be fair to say that they fell in love the day they met, when he got lost in the house on his first day.  Of course, their relationship can have no future.

The Civil War intervenes, postponing Lucretia’s marriage to the ghastly Piers, and John has to go on the road to feed the forces.  When he returns, the Manor is a different place, ransacked, Sir William is away, and Lucretia runs what’s left. Food is scarce, but the Feast lives on in John’s mind, and he has a lot of living and loving left to do…

Food, love, and war, entwined with a hint of mythology make for a rich narrative feast. Norfolk was inspired by a chapter about the cuisine of the age in the book Taste by Kate Colquhoun. He’s brilliant at detail of the life in the kitchen, John’s rare and refined palate, and the exquisite dishes he creates. They seem so real you could almost eat them.

“This is the kitchen.”
A wave of noise broke over John, voices shouting, pots banging, pans clanging, knives and cleavers thudding on blocks. But he hardly heard the din. A great flood of aromas swamped the noice, thick as soup and foaming with flavours: powdery sugars and crystallised fruit, dank slabs of beef and boiling cabbage, sweating onions and steaming beets. Fronts of fresh-baked bread rolled forward then sweeter cakes. Behind the whiffs of roasting capons and braising bacon came the great smoke-blackened hams which hung in the hearth. Fish was poaching somewhere in a savoury liquor at once sweet and tart, its aromas braided in twirling spirals … The silphium, thought John. A moment later it was lost in the tangle of scents that rose from the other pots, pans and great steaming urns. The rich stew of smells and tastes reaching into his memory to haul up dishes and platters. For a moment he was back in the wood. His mother’s voice was reciting the dishes and the spiced wine was settling like a balm in his stomach, banishing his cold and hunger, even his anger. He closed his eyes and breathed in the scents, drawing them deeper and deeper …

The feast itself, and the romance between John and Lucretia is allied to the biblical tale of the temptation of Eve and the fall from Eden. The advent of war certainly brings out the serpents, but once banished they can search for a new Eden.

I loved the way that the Feast could endure through hardship – imagining that bread made from root vegetable flour was a fit dish for a feast – well, it was the best available, simple dishes well-made are just as worthy as a concoction full of sugared biscuits at the bottom of an aspic-filled treasure chest, served to the king.

Life in the kitchens of Buckland Manor was truly fascinating, and John’s progress through the ranks made it a pleasure to read.  The central romance and backdrop of the civil war gave us a treat between meals, so to speak!  It was more approachable than Lemprière’s dictionary, but the lengthy descriptive passages might make the story drag for some, but the food is the real star here – and I loved it.  (9/10)

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I borrowed this book. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk. Pub 13 Sep 2012 by Bloomsbury. Hardback, 416 pages.
Lempriere’s Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk, paperback
The Name Of The Rose by Umberto Eco, paperback
Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking by Kate Colquhoun

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