Book Group report: Food

John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

Our Book Group is reading by category this year. When choosing our ‘Food’ book two months ago, we narrowed it down to three books initially and then picked one out of the hat. The three were:

  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang – prize-winning Korean novel
  • John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk – Kitchen boy in Medieval manor house
  • Swindled by Bee Wilson – From Poison Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee – The Dark History of the Food Cheats (non-fiction)

saturnalls-feastMy suggestion of Lawrence Norfolk’s novel won. I really loved this book when I read it in 2012.

My original review is here, where I describe it in full including a wonderfully evocative quote about the activity in the kitchen of Buckland Manor at the heart of the novel. Starting in 1625, food, love, and the English Civil War, entwined with a hint of mythology, a mad Puritan clergyman and the central biblical allegory of Eden, mixed together make the recipe for a rich narrative feast.

I really hoped that our Book Group would love it too, and that it would stand up to a re-read for me…

It got a rather mixed reception. Only one member didn’t get on with it at all, some appreciated the writing and enjoyed the story, others found it almost too rich – the long descriptive passages about the food were like a big lunch – a bit soporific. I accept that they can be slightly repetitive. Take these two extracts, describing Mother Nature’s bounty and then scarcity:

jsf-paperbackTogether they pulled peppery watercress from the edges of marshy puddles and grubbed up tiny sweet carrots, dark purple under the dusty earth. Clover petals yielded honey-breads and jellylike mallow seeds savoured of nuts. Tiny strawberries sheltered under ragged leaves and sweet blackberries swelled behind palisades of finger-pricing thorns. John licked the blood-red juice off his hands, his demon savouring the taste. (p37)

John chased after rabbits or climbed trees in search of birds’ eggs. He returned with mallow seeds of chestnuts that they pounded into meal then mixed with water and baked on sticks. The unseasonal orchards yielded tiny red and gold-streaked apples, hard green pears and sour yellow cherries. But each morning was colder. Each day, John had to venture further. Each night, he and his mother lay down with aching bellies. (p87)

We discussed John’s parentage and the endearing character of the ‘Heron Boy’, but the group in general didn’t have a lot to say about it.

Perhaps this novel is best savoured on your own (with a stash of secret chocolate?). I loved it all over again – this is a book you can re-read. (9/10)

Next month, our theme is music – and we’re reading The Commitments by Roddy Doyle.

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Lawrence Norfolk, John Saturnall’s Feast (Bloomsbury, 2012) paperback, 416 pages.

2 thoughts on “Book Group report: Food

  1. I read your original review when you republished it today, and I do like the sound of his writing. I would be happy with lots of food descriptions (as long as there is chocolate about, as you say!) although as I’m vegetarian the meaty bits might be a problem…. Maybe I should try something else by him!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It’s not overly ‘meaty’ actually. Herbs, spices and flavouring / taste in general play the largest part in the food of this novel, and it has seasonality too, following the produce year.

      I’ve yet to read his 2nd and 3rd novels – which both lurk on my shelves: The Pope’s Rhinoceros and In the Shape of a Boar. The latter is all about boar-hunts though, so won’t be your cup of tea. However, I’d like to re-read Lempriere’s Dictionary first to see if it’s as complex, erudite, Gothic and fantastic as I remember it!

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