John Saturnall's Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

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John Saturnall's Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Madeline Wheatley
Reviewed by Madeline Wheatley
Summary: An unusual historical novel set in the seventeenth century, following the fortunes of John Saturnall from persecuted orphan to Master Cook in a great manor house.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: September 2012
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 9781408805961

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John Saturnall’s mother is a healer and herbalist. It was all too easy in the 1620’s for women with her skills to come under suspicion of witchcraft. When John and his mother are hounded from their village by religious extremists the Lessoners, they hide in Buccla’s Wood. But as winter takes a grip on the land John’s mother dies. John is taken in to work in the kitchens at Buckland Manor. His progress from scullery boy to cook is graphically recorded alongside his prickly relationship with the daughter of the house, Lucretia. The story takes the couple through the years of the civil war, when life at Buckland comes under threat from the advancing Puritan army.

Well, reading that summary makes the book sound like an exciting but fairly standard historical adventure; which it isn’t. What makes the story stand out is its appeal to your senses. The tale is steeped in the scents and flavours of the recipes that John creates. Each chapter opens with a recipe, described in memorable terms. Try this explanation of how to skim spiced wine until the liquid is clear: Leave to cool then heat again and skim. This will be done a Second time and a Third until the King’s Face on a Penny Coin may be seen plain on the Bottom. The kitchens at Buckland are vast, chaotic, smoky caverns that reminded me of the fantastic kitchens in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. Throughout the story, places that John visits are captured in the nutshell of how they smell. What do you notice in a wartime encampment? According to John it’s the odour of woodsmoke and latrines.

Religious intolerance takes a drumming as the story progresses. The actions carried out by the Lessoners in the name of God reveal a harsh and jealous deity whose followers are as much abused as any dissenters. The grief caused to ordinary families by the posturing of both sides in the civil war is an undertone to events.

But for me the best parts of John Saturnall’s Feast are the recipes and the detailed recreation of kitchen life. John’s progress through the levels of the kitchen hierarchy held my attention more than his experiences in the war. Norfolk also has a Dickensian way of naming characters which made me smile: who could resist names like Abel and Mercy Starling, Dando Candling, Tom Hob, Melichert Roos and Tam Yallop.

Thank you to the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

For further recently published historical fiction with bite try Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel or Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain

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