John Saturnall’s Feast, by Lawrence Norfolk

An extraordinary novel which charts the life of John Saturnall, the misfit son of a woman accused of witchcraft, this book goes beyond the usual bounds of historical fiction and creates something verging on the mythological. Its presentation is ingenious, with the narrative interspersed with seventeenth-century recipes suitable for each of the occasions then charted in the following chapters. Its plot is almost secondary to the overall conceit, but manages not to be smothered underneath the folklore and sensory delights of Norfolk’s description of various complicated dishes. The underlying thread of the novel is the existence of a mythical lore learnt from John’s mother’s ancient cookbook, which tells of an original idyllic life of Saturnalian feasting, before the deadly sins were labelled as evils, where gluttony was appreciating the gifts of nature, and the exquisite nature of ‘the feast’.

John learns of the feast from his mother just before she dies. Alone in the world, he is taken to Buckland Manor house, where he swiftly finds work as a kitchen boy, thanks to his incredible sense of smell. He soon stumbles upon the coldly beautiful Lady Lucretia, the lord of the manor’s daughter. Lucretia is an excellent opposite to Norfolk’s hero. Sensitive to the fact that her mother died giving birth to her – in the hope of a son – Lucretia is a delicate yet strong-willed soul who shuns good food, and survives on an emaciating diet of gruel. It falls to John’s ingenuity in the kitchen to entice her away from her self-inflicted hardship.

The intricacies of life at Buckland Manor are off-set by the turmoil of the wider world. This is the seventeenth century, where civil war brought havoc upon all corners of the land, and religious dissent sparked witch-hunts and accusations of ungodliness. Buckland is beset by fanatics, nearly trodden into the ground, but despite every calamity – the feast is remembered. John Saturnall’s Feast is an exquisitely-worked out piece of fiction which manages to chart a romantic story through interesting times, and goes further by presenting the story in a highly original fashion.