JOHN Saturnall’s Feast, Lawrence Norfolk’s fourth novel in 21 years, seems, like its predecessors, the story of one man’s journey, brought to life by imagination, and set in the past, which permits the imagination scope to delve and invent within the constraints of historical record.
John Saturnall’s Feast
by Lawrence Norfolk
Bloomsbury, 408pp, £16.99
Almost 60 years unfold: the story conjures up rural England during the reign of Charles I, the Civil War, Oliver Cromwell’s interregnum, the Restoration of the monarchy, concluding with a snippet from the Book of John Saturnall, a memoir-cum-recipe book-cum-philosophical tract, from which Saturnall speaks direct to the reader (as he does on the novel’s first page) in a voice archaic and vernacular, full of rich relish for life truly tasted, robustly lived.
Saturnall visits the reader similarly throughout, in pertinent extracts – thin wafers of words from the 17th century – bonding yet separating the chapters of his life as told by Norfolk in a succession of succulent courses, making the book a playful metaphor for the art of creating art, of concocting rare dishes: “weighty Matters for a Cook to peruse, who better sweats above a Pot than a Page,” Saturnall writes, and you catch in his words the distant twinkle in Norfolk’s eye, of self-deprecation and satisfaction.
The story is rich, and many faceted, not in narrative quite so much as in ideas. Norfolk’s novels heretofore have been ambitious, weaving time and plot and narrative into a skein which some readers and critics found abstruse. His debut, Lemprière’s Dictionary, intricate though it is, tried to say everything in one book.
John Saturnall’s Feast is all the more brilliant for what it leaves out, for the beady-eyed scrutiny it plays, not on time and place so much as on character, through which everything that makes this novel “historical” comes to life.
It begins in 1625, with the 11-year-old John Sandall, a bundle of rags, slumped on a mule, in toilsome progress down a deep valley towards Buckland Manor. The landscape is gnarled and wet and brooding, reality dampened and heightened at once, producing a mood of drear expectation.
What lies behind him? What is John’s fate? Out of this mystery comes the energy that drives the story forward, as John leaves behind the isolation of life with his mother, a woman respected, but feared as a witch.
A Puritan madness has gripped their village and cast them away to Buccla’s Wood, with its spirit history and feasting, where Saturnus’s people once lived as equals, attuned to nature. Before she dies John’s mother confides that his name is not Sandall; it is Saturnall, and she teaches him her knowledge and the secrets of the Feast.
John’s arrival at Buckland Manor is a tipping point. The mists are dispelled; the magic drowned out by the clatter of the kitchen where John serves Scovell, the Master Cook, and shows prodigious capability. Soon it is clear that, years before, John’s mother too had made an impression here. The past – not least the hatreds that drove John to flight – seems potently present.
But it is love, slow burning, complicated, thwarted and temperamental, that seizes the plot and drives the intrigue. Lady Lucretia, wilful daughter of Sir William, finds herself sparked by young Saturnall’s presence, and duly impressed by his rapid rise through the ranks of the kitchen as Scovell’s protégé. When the king comes to call, and announces Lucretia’s betrothal to an aristocratic wastrel (an attempt to secure the succession since Sir William has no sons), Lucretia rebels and refuses food. John is appointed to cook a meal she cannot resist.
On the eve of the wedding, civil war is declared. The nuptials are postponed and Sir William, his peasantry, servants and kitchen staff in his wake, rides off to the slaughterhouse later known as the Battle of Naseby. In their absence, Puritan zealots call at the manor, subjecting Lucretia to their will in the name of scripture.
The book is poised to deal with the conflicts which will ensue when war is ended. Who will live, who will die? As it transpires, there is worse to deal with, and a legacy John has not reckoned upon to be faced. Norfolk places his characters firmly within their historical situations, posing questions about free will and the forces that curb choice.
But he does it so brilliantly, in language that never flags, that the story carries its issues lightly and by the end, in affirmation of love and reason, John Saturnall’s Feast becomes a banquet that’s hard to resist.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Monday 20 May 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 21 C
Wind Speed: 9 mph
Wind direction: South
Temperature: 6 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: North west