This is a powerful and driven story of talent, ambition, and revenge. Killian Lone is a gifted young chef who has learnt his skills in his aunt’s old cottage, a building steeped in history and the memory of his ancestor Mary, who was burned for witchcraft. From the outset of the novel it is clear that there is something special about this cottage: a secret, or a forbidden knowledge. Killian is inspired by his aunt’s cooking and by her stories about his ancestors, which give him the determination to pursue his dream of becoming a top-rate chef. Killian’s wildest dreams look like they are about to come true when he wins an internship with his idol, Max Mann, the “Gentleman Chef”. His dream swiftly turns into nightmare when Max’s true personality is revealed, and the newspaper reports and glowing reputation are clearly nothing more than a carefully created façade.
This novel is a combination of fairy-tale and gritty realism. It is atmospheric and stifling, demanding huge leaps of imagination even as it conjures what seem to be very accurate descriptions of the culinary world. It ostensibly has a weak protagonist, but one whose strength grows as he inherits the secrets of his ancestors. But those secrets were made for a reason…
Killian’s reaction to the obstacles blocking his path to culinary success is what really makes this novel. While he is disheartened, disappointed and hurt, he overcomes these ‘weak’ emotions and uses them to fuel his ambition. This sounds admirable, but there is a dark element to his behaviour. The author manages to illuminate this by using other characters such as Kathryn, Killian’s colleague and love-interest, to show us how he is changing from naïve apprentice into something much more complex and dubious. The success of the novel lies in the amazingly complex characterisation of Killian, the path he has to take to achieve his goal, and the transformation which he undergoes.
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.