John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk
Historical fiction has its ups and downs but this forthcoming novel was a real high point for us. The story starts in a small, rural village in England in the 1620s and centres around a young boy named John Saturnall and his mother who are slowly shunned from the community due to her knowledge of herbal medicine and its use in midwifery. In short, a zealous religious element that has sprouted in the village accuses John’s mother of being a witch. This small-minded persecution leads to their eventual expulsion from the village and his mother’s death, and this in turn leads to John being taken in as a kitchen boy at the local manor, and his life (and the narrative) are set on a path of discovery and adventure. He falls in love, meets King Charles, goes to war, learns about his family history and comes to terms with the loss of his mother amongst other things.
We shall stop our synopsis now as really you should be reading the book and to be honest, when you lay out the bare bones of the story it’s somewhat formulaic. But in the 21st century it’s becoming harder and harder to write genuinely original fiction so we don’t see this as a problem and neither should you, because it’s the meat on those bones that makes this novel a… well, a feast.
We haven’t come across a protagonist like John in a long while in fiction. We tend to find the main characters in books to be either cliché, shallow or too good to be true, and often in books like this one that cover a large swathe of characters, life the latter is the case and it really grinds. How many amazing things can happen to one person? How well-balanced can one personality be? Artistic License is one thing but we are often left frustrated by authors cramming too much into their characters. Not so here, we are glad to say. John Saturnall is mature and well thought out and it was a real pleasure seeing the world through his eyes, interacting with the other major players that he interacts with and living his life alongside him. There’s a part of the novel towards the end where John is removed from the plot for a few years and then returns and there’s a hint that he’s had many adventures whilst he’s been away. But it remains a hint and we are so glad to not be subjected to his many exploits being paraded around and spoiling the flow of the narrative.
The supporting cast have a similar feel to them. Lucretia Fremantle is as passionate, headstrong and alive as you could hope for in a leading lady, and Mr Norfolk has a great way of conveying the images and personalities his characters without going into too much description, so often they paint themselves indelibly into your imagination after only a few lines of dialogue or one or two well thought out set pieces.
The attention to detail really shows in other areas too. The element of food and cookery is fabulously well placed and each chapter has a short introduction that — earlier in the book at least — contains actual recipes for period dishes which we were tempted to try out (and would’ve done if our own cookery skills were up to it). It’s also included wholeheartedly and not just thrown in on top, indeed it’s a central theme and that really made the book stand out for us. The narrative isn’t overflowing with descriptive writing, everything is paced out nicely and seems to effortlessly paint a vivid picture of whatever it flows through; coarse English winters, fine old country manors, muddy battlefields, deep and mysterious woodland ripe with flora and fauna.
In it’s 400 odd pages this book tells a romantic, compelling and near complete life story of an interesting character and it’s a journey we made happily and we will most likely do so again in the future, which is not something we do often. So Lawrence Norfolk is a name to remember, at least until you get hold of copy of John Saturnall’s Feast and thoroughly enjoy reading it.
John Saturnall’s Feast is published in Hardback by Bloomsbury on 13th September 2012, rpp: £16.99. For further information or to order visit the book’s website here.