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John Saturnall's Feast Hardcover – September 4, 2012

4.0 out of 5 stars 70 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“[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

About 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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press; 1 edition (September 4, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780802120519
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802120519
  • ASIN: 0802120512
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (70 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,430,980 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By S Riaz TOP 500 REVIEWER on August 28, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This is a beautiful, descriptive novel which is hard to define, but glorious to read. It is partly a historical novel, set in and around the time of the English Civil War, partly a tale of mythology and also, perhaps mostly, a love story. The book begins with John Sandall and his mother Susan, who grow up in a small village. Preachers accuse John's mother of witchcraft, the local boys bully him and he feels an outcast. Driven from the village, his mother dead, John is taken to Buckland Manor to the care of Sir William Freemantle. Sir William is an embittered man, who has lost his beloved wife, Lady Anne, in childbirth, giving birth to his daughter Lucretia. Lucretia herself is an unhappy young girl, who starves herself and lives in a world of make believe. Yet Buckland Manor cannot be left to a daughter and Sir William is forced to look outward and invite distant relatives who are as "penniless as shepherds", Sir Hector, Lady Caroline and their son Piers to the Manor, hoping for a marriage alliance.

This is a story of Civil War, of John's rise as a cook under Master Scovell, of John's history and of the relationship between a penniless young man and the Lady of the Manor. John's mother always read to him about the Feast of Saturnall and the Master Cook tells him that "every true cook carries a feast inside him." When Lady Lucretia refuses to eat, then John must tempt her appetite. When the King visits, then he must create a feast fit for Royalty and, when starvation threatens, he must feed the troops. This story follows all the twists and turns that history throws at Lucretia and John, as they cope with religious intolerance, war and the impossibility of being together.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Like other readers, I really wanted to like this novel. It had so much buzz at BEA, and they did a beautiful job with the production of the novel, with lovely illustrations, beautiful endpapers, and red ink accents throughout. Alas, despite my optimism, I found Lawrence Norfolk's latest a real slog.

John Saturnall's Feast is the story of John Sandall (who rechristens himself Saturnall for reasons of his own), on his journey from social outcast to kitchen boy to master chef of a 17th century British estate. Moreover, it is a love story between servant and mistress. And finally, it is the story of a struggle to preserve the custom of an ancient feast (but I'd be lying if I pretended I fully understood anything about that sub-plot).

Many have commented on Norfolk's beautiful prose. Now, I'm a regular reader of literary fiction, but I found the 17th century language difficult and burdensome. Furthermore, the archaic recipes that preceded each chapter brought the action of the novel to a grinding halt--which was unfortunate, as things were already moving at a glacial pace. That seems odd to say about a book that dealt with life and death, love and war, but it took me weeks to get through this novel, simply because it was a chore to pick it up. And again this is strange, as in addition to a love story, this was essentially 17th century food porn, and I love that stuff. But the food was as disinteresting and unappealing as the central characters.

I never connected with either John or Lucy emotionally. I didn't find them especially likable, which made it hard to care about their romance. Nor did I feel that I ever truly understood who they were as people.
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After a brilliant debut with Lempriere's Dictionary and a solid, if inconsistent, "The Pope's Rhinoceros," Lawrence Norfolk spent a great deal of time (and took it) with "In the Shape of a Boar." The density of historical layering and narrative that had worked in the later stages of "Lempriere's Dictionary" failed under the weight of an obsessive recreation of a literalized Heroic style. In other words, the novel failed, at least for me, because the theme could not survive the formal effort of an hyper-Classicized narrative.

"John Saturnall's Feast" returns to an English setting, and it settles in the early 17th century. The history of the time is culturally explosive, and Norfolk explores the hinterlands, where "remnant" (if you believe that-away) paganism met Puritanism in the reign of one of England's most corrupt kings. The novel succeeds by being a fine read. Its narrative comes first. The theme is fairly obvious, and the formal tricks are . . . absent. This is not a "historical novel," of course, because the interest of the author is on his characters, and history provides only a set of opposing forces to make their crises possible.

This is an enjoyable, accessible novel. It does not follow through on many of the plots it introduces. While some of those are part of the point, others are a bit too much. At the same time, this is a good read and a fast read.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Lawrence Nofolk has returned to the literary scene with John Saturnall's Feast and readers of his earlier works will be thrilled to hear it. Hovering between magic and reality, this is the story of John Sandall whose mother is shunned as the village witch in The Vale. John does not know who his father is and is confused by the villagers who scorn his mother and torment him, and yet sneak to their hut at night for the remedies she prepares and help for the sick. Even as John is accepted by some of the village children, religious fervor is on the rise in the pre Reformation period in England. A fanatical priest, a weak church leader and an easily swayed mob is all it takes to have John and his mother hounded out of the village and into the forbidden Buccla's woods.

Starving in the woods as winter comes on, John's mother shares with him an ancient book of recipes that detail a feast. She shares with him the mythology, or history, of the woods and a little of what his lineage might have been. John's mother dies of starvation and exposure but the recipes are now in John's head. He quickly finds that his mother has left instructions with the church leader for where John is to be sent after her death. He arrives, bedraggled and confused, at Buckland Manor house where he encounters Lucerita, the daughter of the house, and in short order, ends up working in the kitchens.

Norforlk has obviously done his research into the running of kitchens in large houses and food preparation in the 1600's. This section of the novel is rife with imagery and detail and the sheer magnitude of the work done in the kitchens to run a large house comes through very well; as does the odd fascination with food being presented as a physically built work of art.
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