I wouldn’t consider it a Christmas book, but reading Lawrence Norfolk‘s John Saturnall’s Feast (2012) seems fitting this time of year when everyone is busy feasting and celebrating holiday traditions.
John Saturnall’s Feast is a historical fiction that begins in 1625 in a small village in England. Though he has never known another home, John knows that he and his mother, with their dark hair and strange ways did not belong among the fair haired, fair skinned people of Buckland. Born with the uncanny sense of smell, John learned everything he knew about all things that grew from his mother who had a talent for brewing potions to ease the village women’s labour pains and other ailments. Their strange ways and practices were enough to cause the villagers to be wary of them, branding his mother a witch and burning down their house. Driven off by the cult zealots of the village with nothing but the clothes on their backs and a mysterious book, John and this mother sought refuge in Buccla’s Woods which the superstitions villagers were afraid to enter.
With their home gone, John and his mother rely on the forest for nourishment and shelter, and there, she teaches him how to read from her mysterious book, the truth about her past, the origin of their people, and about the Feast – a decadent celebration where everything that grew was prepared in sumptuous dishes to be shared by everyone. But before his mother’s lessons were complete, John experiences another tragedy which will pave the way to his new home, and his new life.
Upon the wishes of his mother, John is brought to live and serve the kitchens of The Manor – home to Buckland’s landlord, Sir William Freemantle and his only daughter, Lady Lucretia. Living in the Manor, John’s unique talents are quickly recognized by the master cook and he is instructed to learn everything there is to learn in the kitchen, working his way from the very bottom, as a dishwasher, to the very top, alongside the master cook.
While living in The Manor, John learns to cook sumptuous dishes for his masters, other nobles and royalty; cooks and lives through a war; lean, hard years after the war at the hands of cult zealots; years that saw a new King on the throne; years during the the Manor’s recovery, and then again at its decline.
Contrary to my first impressions, John Saturnall’s Feast is not solely about feasting and food, though it does have its share of mouth-watering narratives on the preparation of exotic dishes such as blancmanges, syllabubs and honeyed creams (I had no idea what first two were until I googled each one). Surprisingly, the book actually does not focus too much on John Saturnall’s cooking or remarkable sense of smell, and though each chapter is preceded by a recipe, the dish presented is less an instruction on how to cook something than a description of the chapter to come.
John Saturnall’s Feast has a much longer timeline than I expected and it has a broader scope including mythology, class struggles and prejudices, religion, cults, and superstitions. Most surprising of all, John Saturnall’s Feast, more than anything, is a love story with hungry passions and forbidden relationships.
John Saturnall’s Feast (2012) – Lawrence Norfolk
Grove Press; 410 pages
Personal rating: 2.5/5