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Friday, August 31, 2012

"John Saturnall's Feast" by Lawrence Norfolk (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

 

"A beautiful, rich and sensuous historical novel, John Saturnall’s Feast tells the story of a young orphan who becomes a kitchen boy at a manor house, and rises through the ranks to become the greatest Cook of his generation. It is a story of food, star-crossed lovers, ancient myths and one boy’s rise from outcast to hero.

Orphaned when his mother dies of starvation, having been cast out of her village as a witch, John is taken in at the kitchens at Buckland Manor, where he quickly rises from kitchen-boy to Cook, and is known for his uniquely keen palate and natural cooking ability. However, he quickly gets on the wrong side of Lady Lucretia, the aristocratic daughter of the Lord of the Manor. In order to inherit the estate, Lucretia must wed, but her fiancé is an arrogant buffoon. When Lucretia takes on a vow of hunger until her father calls off her engagement to her insipid husband-to-be, it falls to John to try to cook her delicious foods that might tempt her to break her fast.

Reminiscent of Wolf Hall and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, John Saturnall’s Feast is a brilliant work and a delight for all the senses."


OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Since his very notable debut some 20 years ago with Lempriere's Dictionary, Lawrence Norfolk has written only one more major novel, The Pope's Rhinoceros which was what I expected and more. The Pope's Rhinoceros is a pretty dense novel at ~700 pages long, though it is very rewarding and makes one understand life in Europe's 1520's better than many historical treatises, through its superb atmosphere and the powerful style of the author.

When somewhat unexpectedly - more than a decade since the last book which was the relatively minor, In the Shape of the Boar, tends to put into perspective "unexpectedly" - I noticed John Saturnall's Feast on one of my regular "new title roundups" followed pretty soon after by getting a review e-copy, I expected to take me a while to read it.

To my surprise I almost breezed through John Saturnall's Feast as it was very hard to put down, but also it stood at about "only" 400 pages and was written in a much more accessible style - a pretty straight forward and more or less chronological narrative interspersed by fanciful "feast recipes" according to particular events of importance in the book. 

Actually, the style is almost sensuous in a way, though the grime and harsh realities of England from around 1630's till 1662 - with an epilogue set a decade or so later - are very much in evidence also.

The book is clearly John's story and the blurb is generally accurate, but despite that the main hero is only a "cook" rather than a knight or such, there is adventure, heroism, seduction, battles, fanatics...

The novel is also very visual - I was picturing quite a lot of it as a Peter Greenaway movie, more precisely the mixture of the period of Draughtsman's Contract and the feasting of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Though now the cook is the lover too and he does not end on the dinner table...
 

I will also add that the physical US edition of the novel which has been recently released in stores, looks absolutely gorgeous with a superb cover that has that special feel last year's "The Half Made World" had, while the interior design is superlative too.

Overall a great return to publishing for the author, John Saturnall's Feast is a top 25 novel of mine for 2012, while I expect I will reread it quite a few times to enjoy its atmosphere and unlikely hero. 

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