Starting with Lemprière’s Dictionary — an unexpected worldwide hit in the early 1990s — Lawrence Norfolk has never been a man for the slim novella. Complicated of plot and huge of cast, his books generally serve up a combination of almost obsessively researched history and somewhat arcane mythology. Now, 12 years since his last one, comes John Saturnall’s Feast — a novel, I think it’s fair to say, that doesn’t mark a radical change of direction.
The year is 1625, and in the Oxfordshire village of Buckland the puritans are on the march. For 11-year-old John Saturnall, this is particularly worrying, because his mother Susan is widely (and, it would seem, accurately) regarded as the local witch. Eventually the two are driven into the woods, where she gives young John a crash course in herbs, spices and pre-Christian belief-systems — with particular reference to the story of Saturnus’s great feast when all people enjoyed the fruits of the earth together.
But once winter comes, Susan dies of the cold, leaving John to take his chances at nearby Buckland Manor. Luckily, his mum’s teachings have made him an unusually good cook and he’s soon doing well in the kitchens. Less luckily, he falls for the lord of the manor’s daughter, the impeccably haughty Lucretia.
Still, there’s always cooking to fall back on — and fall back on it John certainly does. Over several chapters, in fact, the novel seems to consist mostly of lengthy and lyrical descriptions of meals being prepared, meals being served and meals being eaten. For students of 17th-century English cuisine, this will presumably be an invaluable resource. For the rest of us, the law of diminishing returns can’t help but set in, as we’re force-fed yet another passage beginning, say, ‘To make cabbage cream he let the thick liquid clot, lifted off the top layer, folded it then repeated the process until the cabbage was sprinkled with rose water and dusted with sugar, ginger and nutmeg.’ (After a while, I think I understood how a French goose feels.) Only with the outbreak of the Civil War on page 269 does the cooking temporarily fade into the background — and I’m pretty sure I won’t be the only reader who greets the total disintegration of English society with some relief.
The other problem with the book is the mythological stuff. Norfolk’s idea of a lost pagan Britain, and of the eponymous feast itself, often feels both sentimental and over-solemn, which in turn creates the always-uncomfortable sense that what we’re reading is more significant for the author than for us. (Think Graham Greene at his most extravagantly Catholic.)
Surprisingly, though, for such an ambitiously literary novel, there are also elements that could have come straight from an old-school historical yarn, complete with saintly goodies, diabolical baddies and even a spot of bodice-ripping. (‘As his fingers touched her cheek, he let them rest against the smooth curve of her skin. She looked up, eyes wide.’) And, in the end, perhaps the real trouble with John Saturnall’s Feast is that these are the best parts of the book. Certainly I can’t imagine many readers preferring the umpteenth description of coddled apples, or John’s portentous but rather vague vision of the cook as social healer, to the terrific chapter set on the battlefield at Naseby.
Of course, it never seems right to criticise a writer for excessive ambition. Yet, in this case, it’s increasingly hard to ignore such tantalising glimpses of how the book might have been if only Norfolk had reined things in a bit: a gripping (and much shorter) straight historical novel, pitched somewhere between J. G. Farrell and Georgette Heyer.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 September 2012