3 stars,  Food,  historical fiction

Review: ‘John Saturnall’s Feast’ by Lawrence Norfolk

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Full synopsis at GoodReads

1625. In the remote village of Buckland, a mob chants of witchcraft and John Sandall and his mother are running for their lives. Taking refuge among the trees of Buccla’s Wood, John’s mother opens her book and begins to tell her son of an ancient Feast kept in secret down the generations. But as the rich dishes rise from the pages, the ground beneath them freezes. That winter John’s mother dies.

The Feast is John’s legacy. Taken as an orphan to Buckland Manor, the ancestral seat of Sir William Fremantle, John is put to work in its vast subterranean kitchens, the domain of Richard Scovell. Under the Master Cook’s guidance, John climbs from the squalor of the Scullery to the great house above…
An astounding work of historical fiction, John Saturnall’s Feast charts the course of one man’s life from steaming kitchens to illicit bedchambers, through battlefields and ancient magical woods. Expertly weaving fact with myth, Lawrence Norfolk creates a rich, complex and mesmerising story of seventeenth-century life, love and war.

I was really looking forward to this one – historical fiction with a magical, food-based twist? Right up my alley.  The first half more than lived up to my expectations – each chapter starts with an excerpt from an ancient recipe, which makes sure that wherever the story strays and whatever the characters are doing, there’s a foodie thread running all the way through.  They’re strangely beautiful on their own but they’re worked into the story on a whole host of different levels too.

This is very much a story in two parts.  The first part looks back over John’s turbulent childhood and explores the persecution of those women that didn’t quite subscribe to established religion as “witches” (and the effect that persecution had on families and communities).  The pace is slow but the detail makes it all worth it.  John has an exceptional sense of smell and often recounts his experiences by reference to distinctive scents and aromas.  The writing is fantastic and great to get lost in.  

The pace picks up when John arrives at Buckland Manor and the shift works – he quickly gets embroiled in life in the vast kitchens and has to learn to develop relationships with his fellow kitchen-hands.  Alongside the ancient recipes, the preparation of great feasts were my absolute favourite parts of the book; the hustle and bustle, the steaming vats of sauces, the sheer volume of ingredients and camaraderie of the kitchen. Brilliant.

For all of the detail that Norfolk manages to cram into his story about life in the kitchens of a sprawling estate, however, the latter part of the story suffers from some huge gaps.    As John gets older, it’s as though the story is put on fast forward.  After spending so much time on his childhood, the jumps in time disrupt the atmosphere and seem like an easy way out.

There is a very poignant moment about two thirds of the way through the novel, for example, where John discovers something about his ancestors and heritage that I was sure would impact on his relationships and position but, rather than deal with the repercussions and develop the related characters, the narrative stops and shifts forward a few years so that you can work out for yourself what the aftermath might have been (both immediately and in the intervening years) and clamour to catch up and work out what’s happened to all of your favourites.  I like a good conclusion of an emotional dilemma as much as the next person but it would have been nice to share the journey a little bit too.

I hoped it was a one off but found it happening with increasing frequency as I was nearing the end of John’s story and I got more and more frustrated about what I was sure I was missing out on.  When the English Civil War starts and the people in the village are divided by Oliver Cromwell’s religious minions, there are some harrowing scenes that are reminiscent of the early chapters.  Sadly, though, the detail was always short-lived and year long gaps were never far away.  I suppose in a way it’s a testament to the early part of the novel that I wanted more from the later parts.  A lot of potential but a faint whiff of disappointment tainting the end, unfortunately.

Overall:  There are some very charming and quirky aspects to John Saturnall’s Feast that make reading it something a bit different but, ultimately, I felt as though it was striving to be something epic without committing to the page count or character development.  If you’re happy to meander through some 17th century recipes but skip out on some of the background, this is for you.  If it’s the sweeping historical fiction that you’re looking for, you could do better (Pillars of the Earth, for example, which is one of my absolute favourite books).

Date finished:  05 January 2013
Format:  eBook
Source:  Received via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review
Genre:  Historical fiction
Published (in the UK): by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc in September 2012