Up for Review: John Saturnall’s Feast

John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk (Grove Press)

Marketing copy from NetGalley:

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.

It is the early-seventeenth century and John Saturnall is a young boy grow­ing up in the village of Buckland. He is bullied by other children, who claim that his mother is a witch. When many of the children in the village become sick, John’s mother is blamed, and she and her son are chased out of the village. They move to a forest, where it is said a witch called Buccla once grew a legend­ary garden. Giving what little she can forage to her son, John’s mother soon dies of starvation, but sees to it that John is taken in at the Buckland Manor house, where he begins working in the kitchen.

At the manor, John’s keen palate and natural cooking ability allow him to quickly rise from kitchen boy to cook. However, he soon 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 whose face Lucretia thinks resembles a water parsnip. When Lucretia takes a vow of fasting until her father calls off her engagement, it falls on John to try to cook her delicious food that might tempt her to break her fast. As John serves meals to Lucretia, an illicit attraction grows between the pair, but fate is conspiring against them. Lucretia’s betrothal cannot be undone, and soon the household is thrown into chaos as Cromwell’s Roundheads go to war with the loyalist Cavaliers and the English Civil War begins.

Reminiscent of Wolf Hall, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and works by David Mitchell and Peter Carey, John Saturnall’s Feast is a brilliant work by a writer at the top of his powers, and a delight for all the senses.


John Saturnall’s Feast is due to be published tomorrow (4 September 2012) by Grove Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic. It was published in the UK by Bloomsbury on 13 September 2012, and in my opinion the UK edition has a much prettier cover.

For those who’d like to know more, I’ve collected some links for you:

Read an extract at Granta Magazine
Website for the novel
Bloomsbury book trailer (YouTube)
Lawrence Norfolk introduces John Saturnall’s Feast (YouTube), and discusses his inspiration for the novel. The video is shot in one of the few surviving 17th century kitchens – the exact kind of kitchen where the main character would have worked. Norfolk speaks a bit about working in the kitchen and what they would have cooked there; a nice way of setting the stage for his novel.
Author’s website
Buy John Saturnall’s Feast at The Book Depository
Norfolk is the author of three other historical novels. Check them out on Goodreads.

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