September 2012

Annie Levin


John Saturnall's Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

A sumptuous, epicurean romp through the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century, Lawrence Norfolk's John Saturnall's Feast gives the Harry Potter treatment to the form of historiographic metafiction. Densely researched and brimming with descriptions of the lordly cuisine of the time ("foam of forcemeats of fowls," anyone?) I could never shake the feeling that Harry, Ron, and Hermione have transferred to seventeenth century culinary school. For all its gastronomic delights, John Saturnall's Feast falls pretty flat in the way of characters. While we receive intimate knowledge of how to make clear gelatin from Madeira sugar, the characters remain rough sketches; pleasantly designed avatars running on automatic through the actions of the novel.

Although it lacks the psychological finesse of Wolf Hall or the linguistic audacity of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, John Saturnall's Feast is still kind of a blast. It's a lovingly detailed novel about food and love and warfare. There are pictures and recipes. It's exciting and a little bit nutty. Norfolk clearly had a lot of fun writing the first -- and best -- third of this book. John Sandall, or Saturnall as he's later known, is a child when the book begins. He lives in the village of Buckland, in a fictional English county during the reign of Charles I. He and his mother, Susan, the local midwife and apothecary (i.e., witch) live in a hut on the edge of town. There is a division in the village between the middle of the road Church of Englanders and the followers of Warden William Marpot. This latter group adheres to a unique form of Calvinism, the chief activity of which consists of smashing churches and hitting naked women with sticks.

None of this is good news for the local witch and her son when an outbreak of disease starts killing Buckland's children. Fortunately (and here's where the book gets screwy) Susan and John Sandall are the last remaining members of a cult of Gallo-Roman Saturn worshippers, known as Saturnus's People. In pagan days, Saturnus's People had a rich and sustainable relationship with nature, each year celebrating a great ritual feast for everyone in the surrounding area. That is, until one day when the "Priests of Jehovah" came along to smash their feasting tables and expel them from their garden, putting an end to their peaceable paradise on earth, a paradise Saturnus's People were able to create because they "...knew there was no kingdom beyond death. Their heaven was here."

The writing in this section is lush and enjoyable, like a botanical homage to Alice Waters and Richard Dawkins. As the inheritors of this tradition the Sandalls have an illustrated book that tells them about the dishes of Saturnus's feast and the plants and animals in the surrounding area. In observing a picture of the feast in his book, John can

smell the rich tang of the meats. His head swirled from the steaming fumes of the wine. His jaw ached from the sweets which rose in heaps on silver platters while honeyed syllabubs shivered in their cups. He felt the pastry crunch, shiny with beaten butter. He heard the sugar-pane crackle. The sweetmeats flooded his senses, banishing his hunger and cold.

It is Norfolk's goofy yet sensually pleasing pastoral and gastronomic descriptions that carry the reader through this slightly clunky novel. However wooden the characters, we happily stick around for dessert.

John Saturnall, in addition to inheriting Saturnus's feast, also has a genius sense of smell. No matter how complex the sauce, he can tell what the ingredients are from one whiff. This faculty carries him into the kitchens of Buckland Manor where he rises over the years from kitchen boy to master chef. Well researched and beautifully observed, the workings of the seventeenth century manor house kitchen are among the novel's greatest strengths. We follow John and his best friend Philip Elsterstreet through their long sweaty days scraping fat out of cauldrons, whittling turnips, baking, dicing, plucking, and butchering in the bustling kitchens until they come of age. On the way, John endures a slice of the English Civil Wars; a bullet wound; and a heady, food-based affair with the lady of the manor.

Buoyed up on this swashbuckling tide, the reader glides through the pages of the novel as in a pleasant, half-remembered dream. John Saturnall's Feast is an ambitious undertaking, as it seeks to be both a very British pastoral fantasy as well as a work of historically accurate social realism. Neither attempt is completely successful. Both genres collapse on themselves, and what is left is a light froth; it will not fill your belly, but like the best confections, it remains sweet and delicious.

John Saturnall's Feast by Lawrence Norfolk
Grove Press
ISBN: 978-0802120519
416 pages