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When I read Lawrence Norfolk’s new novel, John Saturnall’s Feast, I felt as if I was being immersed in seventeenth-century cookbooks, in a most educational way. No matter how many times you go round a manor house that survived the English Civil War, and have a good look at the kitchens, you will never get as strong a sense of how those kitchens functioned than by reading this novel. Better: you could read this novel sitting at one of the chopping tables or beside the spit axle in the great fireplace, and practically live the apprenticeship of John Saturnall, orphan, witch’s son, and a born cook with a miraculous sense of taste.
The Civil War setting, in the Somerset Levels, means that political and religious strife are central to the plot. John’s parish priest allows cruelty and injustice to embed itself in the parish in the form of a self-ordained Puritan ranting preacher. This Marpot (I cannot stop reading his name as Marplot) has glassy blue eyes, flopping blonde hair, and a devious line in indoctrination that rewards those who do what he wants with moral purity. He’s the evil spirit who haunts John’s life, and represents intolerance and venality because he is a Puritan on the make. But this is a very familiar trope: every Civil War novel I’ve ever read uses this opposition, of the older religious beliefs = good, and the new strict religious bigotry = bad.
Here’s the story: When John and his mother are driven out of their village, she dies in the cold, and he is taken into the kitchens of Buckland Manor, where he becomes a master cook. But all is not easy for him: he is bullied repetitively, in childhood, and in adolescence, and by the affianced of the woman he is in love with. He rises, only to fall, again and again. Just when he thinks he’s got what he wants, catastrophe strikes, either from malice in the kitchens or by the outbreak of war. After the Battle of Naseby his early training in starvation living rebuilds his community, but the pattern of rugs being pulled from under his feet keeps on repeating.
This novel is a thumping good historical read, with tricksy writing that distracts you to think the worst at plot-critical moments. (My mum fell completely for the ditch scene. ‘OH!’ she said, when I explained. ‘Oh. Oh!’, and then she rushed to read that bit again.) There are excellent episodes of cooking in the manor and on the battlefield. There are many vignettes of manor life, of royal entertainment, of scrabbling for survival, and of seduction by taste. There are fascinating explorations of how a manor works, and how inheritance has to be managed when you have bred your family into a dead-end. But the best of this book is in the kitchens.
The life of the kitchens reminded me overwhelmingly of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, but without Mervyn Peake’s quality of malevolence and sense of impending death. I cannot think of any other novelist, apart from Peake, who has written so evocatively and odiferously about the working life of kitchens, and made the facts stick. In these kitchens, Norfolk creates a completely believable social world, separated physically and organisationally from the rest of the Manor, that exists for itself alone. It cooks to feed all who flock to the Manor for doles; its rituals and rules are totally believable, and what its workers do with the mountains of food and spices every day is transfixing. The scene where John reveals his uncanny power of taste and smell is a gripping pivotal moment.
Presented with such a magnificent demonstration of imaginative re-creation, I was disappointed by some thinnesses in the plot. I wanted to read more nuance in the rather predictable ranting fanatics who invade the Manor and persecute its wartime survivors. It is easy to describe them as stupid praying mobs led by power-mad bigots: I wanted a much more persuasive sense of why they did this, even if it was just for food and protection. Seventeenth-century religious beliefs were extraordinarily powerful, but it seems to be hard for modern novelists to convey the imperative of that power to a modern readership: John Buchan’s Witch Wood (1927) is the best example I know, probably because he was a birthright Calvinist. I also wanted more delineation, or fewer characters, in the hordes who worked in the kitchens: they’re all given surnames as well as first names, so there are simply too many names to focus on. I really didn’t like the mystical pagan ritual that survives secretly over many generations, because it only operated as a metaphor for unity, but was presented as a guiding force for hundreds of followers in whom I simply didn’t believe. Too much egg in the cake, there.
But these weaknesses shrivel beside the extravagant recipes, the effortless storytelling, and the inter-chapter notes taken from John’s own cookery book, where we hear a completely different narrative voice (why no more from him?), with a recipe for each turn in the plot. The physicality of this book is also tangible and pleasurable: good thick paper, a spiky typeface, generous margins, and a beautifully illustrated cover.
Lawrence Norfolk, John Saturnall’s Feast (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) £16.99 hardback.
Kate podcasts weekly about the books she really, really likes at http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.