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John Saturnall's Feast

John Saturnall's Feast

2.5 4
by Lawrence Norfolk

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A beautiful, rich and sensuous historical novel, John Saturnall’s Feast tells the story of a young orphan who becomes a kitchen boy at a manor house, and rises through the ranks to become the greatest Cook of his generation. It is a story of food, star-crossed lovers, ancient myths and one boy’s rise from outcast to hero.

Orphaned when his


A beautiful, rich and sensuous historical novel, John Saturnall’s Feast tells the story of a young orphan who becomes a kitchen boy at a manor house, and rises through the ranks to become the greatest Cook of his generation. It is a story of food, star-crossed lovers, ancient myths and one boy’s rise from outcast to hero.

Orphaned when his mother dies of starvation, having been cast out of her village as a witch, John is taken in at the kitchens at Buckland Manor, where he quickly rises from kitchen-boy to Cook, and is known for his uniquely keen palate and natural cooking ability. However, he quickly gets on the wrong side of Lady Lucretia, the aristocratic daughter of the Lord of the Manor. In order to inherit the estate, Lucretia must wed, but her fiancé is an arrogant buffoon. When Lucretia takes on a vow of hunger until her father calls off her engagement to her insipid husband-to-be, it falls to John to try to cook her delicious foods that might tempt her to break her fast.

Reminiscent of Wolf Hall and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, John Saturnall’s Feast is a brilliant work and a delight for all the senses.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Shimmering with wonder, suffused with an intense and infectious appreciation for the gifts of bountiful nature, John Saturnall's Feast is a banquet for the senses and a treat for anyone who relishes masterful storytelling.
—Wendy Smith
Publishers Weekly
Food, history, and romance add layers of flavor to Norfolk’s (In the Shape of a Boar) lush new novel, his first in a decade, about an accused witch’s son who becomes a noble family’s “Top Chef” during the English Civil War. Alternating protagonist-hero John Saturnall’s charmingly antique recipes with the narrative of his occasionally brutal life, Norfolk depicts 17th-century England as a land savaged by political turmoil and religious persecutors. While just a boy, John runs away with his mother from a village mob, taking refuge in a place known as Buccla’s Wood, where she teaches him about the earth’s bounty, but then dies before revealing all her secrets. John soon finds himself tied to a saddle and transported across the Vale to Buckland Manor. There, he works his way up from kitchen boy to “Master Cook,” his culinary gifts blossoming along with his feelings for Lucretia Fremantle, daughter of the lord of the manor. John and Lucretia revive the feast that brings together highborn and low, rich and poor. Despite their efforts, warring factions manage to cause mayhem at the manor, leaving John with the unhappy task of preparing a wedding banquet for Lucretia and her cruel cousin. Artfully told with folkloric undertones, Norfolk’s tale features bruised dreamers seeking sensory respite from their abusers in settings ranging from the kitchen to the battlefield. Known for intellectual prose and complex plots, Norfolk this time out attempts to interweave time and senses, reality and myth, rewarding steadfast readers with savory recipes and a bittersweet upstairs-downstairs love story. Agent: Carole Blake, Blake Friedmann. (Sept.)
From the Publisher

“[Norfolk] will magnify this mysterious world for us, and he will, with an extraordinary use of ordinary language, make us see it not as a historical construct but as a place of wonder. . . . Mr. Norfolk's use of child's-eye view and lush, incantatory prose give the narrative a hushed air of magic, as though Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden were being recounted by the hero of Patrick Süskind's Perfume.”—The Wall Street Journal

“An enthralling tale of an orphan kitchen boy turned master of culinary arts, with sumptuous recipes and intoxicatingly gorgeous illustrations.”—Vanity Fair

“Norfolk, the author of ornate period novels, here uses his talent for detail to evoke the life of a cook at a seventeenth-century British manor. . . . Norfolk creates a Manichaean struggle between Christian and pagan traditions, but this is ultimately less rewarding than the completeness of the physical world he describes.”—The New Yorker

“[John Saturnall’s Feast] focuses with more control on a single protagonist’s odyssey without sacrificing the glittering erudition and gorgeous prose of his previous works. . . . The Feast is a lovely metaphor for an inclusive, joyous vision of life’s physical pleasures, manifestations of the splendors of creation meant to be shared by everyone. . . . Shimmering with wonder, suffused with an intense and infections appreciation for the gifts of bountiful nature, John Saturnall’s Feast is a banquet for the senses and a treat to anyone who relishes masterful storytelling.”—Washington Post

“Norfolk delivers a strong tale filled with atmosphere and the odd, telling detail that convinces.”—Huffington Post

“While the omission of Zadie Smith from this year’s Man Booker longlist seems to have raised the most eyebrows, the overlooking of Lawrence Norfolk’s first book in 12 years seems to me the more grievous exclusion. . . . The arcane vocabulary of archaic cooking gives an intangible poetry to the novel.”—The Times (London)

“Lawrence Norfolk, historical novelist extraordinaire, inhabits the 17th century through its food. From the reign of Charles I through civil war, Cromwell's protectorate and on to the restoration, we are treated to both lavish feasting and battlefield foraging, the politics of the high table and the hearthside use of medicinal herbs. . . . Norfolk's ability to fold history in on itself, and to summon deep time, is as dazzling here as it was in his earlier novels: family genealogy becomes a myth of origins. . . . The material is fascinating. . . . Norfolk's imagination is bigger and more abstract than the individual; he conjures so well the bustling bureaucracy of the 17th-century manor house, its systems of rights and obligations, its geographical and social significance. . . . The food writing is sensuous and exact. . . . You put the book down wanting to make it all.”—The Guardian

“A wonderfully arcane novel. . . In the strict new world of Puritan repression, the pleasures of food take on a deliciously illicit flavor.”—Independent

“A lavishly detailed account of a fictional 17th-century British chef, set against the background of Great Britain's Civil War. . . . Norfolk lavishes loving attention on the workings of a 17th-century manor-house kitchen. . . . interested in describing the making of food and the politics of the kitchen, delighting in the historical kitchen jargon. . . . The physical book itself is a work of art, full of beautiful illustrations and recipes (or "receipts") in 17th-century style.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“A brilliant, erudite tale of cookery and witchcraft.”—AS Byatt

“Lawrence Norfolk is among the most ambitious and inventive of British writers. . . . Beautifully crafted . . . . The plot has a fairy tale quality. . . . The descriptions of food and cooking are simply wonderful, a delicious mixture of slant rhymes and creamy vowel sounds, peppered with poetic archaisms. . . . Such linguistic playfulness lifts the novel about the usual historical potboiler; I have not read a more purely enjoyable book all year.”—Financial Times

“This is a book that rewards attentive reading with both lush detail and crystalline characterizations.”—Book Riot

“[A] sweeping tale of love and legend. Beautiful imagery and captivating details bring the story to life, while descriptions of culinary treats make one’s mouth water. [A] unique and sensuous blending of history and myth.”—Booklist (starred review)

“Food, history, and romance add layers of flavor to Norfolk’s lush new novel . . . Artfully told . . . Known for intellectual prose and complex plots, Norfolk this time out attempts to interweave time and senses, reality and myth, rewarding steadfast readers with savory recipes and a bittersweet upstairs downstairs love story.”—Publishers Weekly (boxed review)

“[A] Dickensian confection of character and incident that includes love and war . . . Offers much to savor, notably the details of cooking and the central question: how preparing food is different than merely cooking it.”—Kirkus Reviews

“A sumptuous, epicurean romp through the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century . . . It's a lovingly detailed novel about food and love and warfare. Densely researched and brimming with descriptions of the lordly cuisine of the time . . . 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.”—Bookslut

“A lyrical tale of historical havoc set in the English Civil War, with cookery as salvation.”—Marie Claire (UK)

"Sumptuous recipes and food descriptions intensify the seductive love story . . . a literary feast."—Library Journal

“There's a mythic quality to Lawrence Norfolk's fourth historical novel. . . . it skillfully entangles folklore and foodlore. . . . Throughout the novel, food is shown to be both a source of sustenance and a thing of ritual; recipes are legacies, the threads connecting generations. . . . Norfolk's writing is at its strongest when he's describing the symbolic significance of certain dishes: spiced wine, delicate curls of spun sugar, slivers of almonds, and the flaking flesh of river fish.”—The Observer (UK)

“Norfolk knows how to make words roll around the mouth. . . . Fantastical architecture and weird botany are a vivid background to the bloody conflict and swooning romance. Norfolk is an expert on obscure sources as well as sauces. His blend of horrid history and oddly credible fantasy deserves to be consumed by the masses.”—Sunday Telegraph

“Mouth-watering and quite beautifully written descriptions. . . . The random violence and lawlessness of the times – England’s own reign of terror – are convincingly drawn and the final chapters become almost unbearably tense.”—Daily Mail

“Norfolk’s accessible, literary prose and his eye for the more curious, gritty period details give lingering depth and subtle spice to the traditional meat of his dish. . . . John Saturnall’s Feast filled me with a rather powerful urge to get out and inhale the rich greens of the English countryside. . . . a sweet and heady rush of reading pleasure.”—The Daily Telegraph

“This is a welcome return from one of the deepest historical novelists around. John Saturnall’s Feast is . . . a pleasure piece. Which is probably why it sings. . . . The Civil War is lightly evoked, its confusion and ignominy done well enough that one remembers Norfolk reported from the war in Bosnia. . . . He creates a tantalizing interplay between hunger and imagination.”—London Evening Standard

John Saturnall’s Feast is a rich mix of myth, superstition, romance and treachery, with elements of a fairytale set against the historical background of the English Civil War. . . . [it] is a remarkable achievement in which Norfolk brings to life the kitchens of the past, and captures the horrors of the Battle of Naseby and the religious zealotry of the era. It is a literary feast.”—Sydney Morning Herald

“Lawrence Norfolk writes strange, ambitious and curiously entertaining literary fiction. . . . [John Saturnall’s Feast] tickles the senses (see the lovely woodcut illustrations) and the imagination.”—South China Morning Post

“On the cusp of an autumn glut, the publication of a novel about a sublime cook in a great house 380 years ago is perfectly timed. At its heart is a love story. . . . The kitchen vocabulary is rich, and Norfolk relishes it. . . . The feast itself is a triumph.”—The Lady

“As complex and full-flavored as a fine wine. . . . Norfolk’s prose gives time and place the cachet of uncertainty, poverty, superstition and political rivalry. . . . The characters, adversaries, fanatics, kings and nobles, village folk and servants color the pages of John Saturnall’s Feast with classic dramas, friendship, romance, jealousies and accomplishments, John generously sharing the bounty of his gifts.”—Curled Up With a Good Book

Library Journal
Since cave-dwelling days, humans have been hunting and gathering and preparing trophies for eating. By the 17th century, when this novel takes place, cooking had advanced beyond the roasting of meat over an open fire into the art of gastronomy. From an early age, John Saturnall has been tutored by his mother, an herbalist believed to be a witch, to assist her and understand the subtleties of the kitchen. Upon her death after she and her son are forced from their village, John is dispatched to the estate of Sir William Fremantle, where his mother once worked. As he rises in the ranks from scullery boy to assistant master cook, he catches the eye of Sir William's feisty daughter, Lucretia. When she is promised in marriage to the loathsome Piers Callock, whose family's close connection will ensure the estate's inheritance, she launches a hunger strike in protest. John is presented with the challenge of creating food that will persuade her to eat. VERDICT Sumptuous recipes and food descriptions intensify the seductive love story of John and Lucretia, turning a tasty treat into a literary feast. [See Prepub Alert, 4/19/12.]—Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Kingston, ON
Kirkus Reviews
A historical coming-of-age tale of a person and a time period (17th-century England), this is the story of a cook and his eponymous cookbook and an allegory of service and human purpose. Norfolk's fourth novel arrives years after the well-reviewed In the Shape of a Boar (2001). John Saturnall is the son of a witch. Or is he? He lives with his mother, who roams with her collecting bag. The center of her life is the hearth, the pot where she brews her potions--the book of recipes her bible. John's mother catechizes him with this book of earthy delights. Then the Reformation asserts itself in Buckland village in the lank-haired form of Timothy Marpot, and a plague arrives shortly thereafter. Sin, with its immense explanatory power, sin that demands correction and expiation, leads to the search for sinners: John and his mother are victimized. Their lives appear heretical. Exiled from home, John is sent to the Manor at the opposite end of the vale. There, he grows into his calling as a cook in the clattering kitchens of Master Scovell; into his consciousness of class and the wages of factional warfare; and into his awareness of the importance of his mother's holy book. What might it mean if the feast belonged to all and not merely to the cook who prepares or the guest who partakes? Norfolk assembles his Dickensian confection of character and incident that includes love and war to dramatize this pungent question. If his characters occasionally verge on caricature, if the foreshadows fall as hard as the executioner's axe, neither weakness subtracts from the plot's satisfactions, arriving steadily as a banquet's courses. Offers much to savor, notably the details of cooking and the central question: how preparing food is different than merely cooking it.

Product Details

Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.80(d)

Meet the Author

Lawrence Norfolk is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Lemprière’s Dictionary, The Pope’s Rhinoceros, and In the Shape of a Boar. He lives in London.

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John Saturnall's Feast 2.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
nfmgirl More than 1 year ago
John Saturnall is sent to Buckland Manor as a young orphan, in hopes that he will find work and a place where he can fit in, as it is his best chance for a decent life. John has a natural talent for smells and tastes. He can break the flavors down in their complexity, pulling them apart and identifying their individual parts. His talent reminded me of that of Moses in The Bells, except Moses' talent dealt with the sense of hearing and John's is that of taste and smell. Given John's talent, he quickly finds his place in the kitchen of the manor, where he excels. His first day at the manor is marked by an eventful meeting with the daughter of the manor, and this begins a remarkable relationship that goes through the years. This story has an almost fairytale feel to it. The descriptions of the food is fantastical (seeming almost unreal). The characters have lovely, quirky little names, and a lyrical way of speaking. My final word: Tragic and charming, and with delicious descriptions, this story was an absolute delight. It is bound to be one of my favorites of the year, and will be earning a place on my permanent library shelves!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Predictable, thin plotting. Dense, self-conscious use of arcane language. Incessant, boring 3-page detours into meaningless details of 17th century meals. Dozens of sloppy typos (e-book). Yep, this one has it all... I bought this book based on the WallSt. Journal's "Best of 2012" list. It was a mistake.
suzieq1 More than 1 year ago
Very predictable and boring.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story was predictable. The typos (ebook) were distracting. I not only regret spending money on this book, I alo regret the time I wasted reading it. The author took a perfectly good story idea, then poked the story full of holes. The resulting book is not fit for consumption