John Saturnall’s Feast

John Saturnall's feast“From The Book of John Saturnall , with the Particulars of that famous Cook’s most Privy Arts, including the Receipts for his notorious Feast.”  —John Saturnall’s Feast, Lawrence Norfolk

I came to the last page of John Saturnall’s Feast and felt like I had understood nothing of the real meaning of the book. Yet the story fairly hummed along with descriptive  language, a deceptively familiar story line, and the reading of it was a pleasure — a regular feast of words. Set in the 17th century, a boy is cast out of his village after his mother dies, she being accused of witchcraft. The boy is taken to the local manor house, where he is  rises through ranks in a great bustling kitchen and eventually becomes a head chef. He also falls in love with the young mistress of the manor. Of course their love is improbable and doomed because she must marry a suitably chosen (but nasty and unattractive) man to carry on the legacy of her lineage.

But woven throughout this novel is the mythic story of the first man and woman and their Feast in the Garden, and the magic of books. John first learns of the Garden from an old and richly illustrated book of his mothers. She is the local healing woman and midwife, and the book seems part herbal lore, part primer, part holy book, infinitely descriptive and yet incredibly vague. And intriguingly, as John reads it, the images on the pages seem nearly to appear as if real. Norfolk seems to deliberately blur the line between words and images and reality as he writes about how John and his mother experience reading this book:

Flowers that John knew from the meadow sprang up beside bushes whose fruit he had never seen before. Creeping plants coiled like serpents amid monstrosities which surely had never existed in nature. Yet every vein of every leaf or petal was picked out as if drawn from life. Every stem was labeled with spiky letters  More such pages followed. then the ancient book  returned with it’s faded ink. This time a forest of birds rose from the mottled paper.

     ‘These pages were written long ago,’ his mother said, looking down at the trunks and branches. ‘Written and rewritten. Long before you and me.’

     ‘What are they?’ John, asked, looking among the trees.

     ‘Each page was a garden. Every fruit grew there.’

After zealous villagers torch their home, John and his mother escape to a mysterious wood that the superstitious and ignorant villagers are convinced  is penetrable only to witches  since it is ringed by thick thorn hedges. But John’s  mother knows a safe way in. This wood turns out to be the the ruins of a marvelous, abundant, mythic garden—-the Garden of the book perhaps— where  the first people, his ancestors, lived and thrived in harmony with each other and the earth’s abundance. Here they camp in exile, and scavenge what remains of the overgrown orchards and kitchen gardens gone wild as autumn dwindles into winter. With them is the book and John and his mother read aloud the dishes of a  marvelous feast his ancestors ate to celebrate this abundance. It is if the feast is conjured to sustain them, again the author’s language blurring reality and imagination.

The importance of gardens, feasts, this mythic tale, and the ability of books to nearly conjure words into physical being are continuously played through the novel. The kitchen of the important manor house that John finds himself employed in after his mother dies, is a celebration of the abundance of gardens, animal husbandry and in it all manner of feasts are prepared.

At the centre stood the Manor where gardeners tended beds that no gentleman saw and ostlers awaited the homes of visitors who never came, where three times a day serving men and every other man, woman and child who wore Sir William’s livery would cluster around the Great Hall and cram their mouths at his lordship’s table.

The writing is incredible as the author describes the tastes, noises, and smells of the kitchen and the manor. Here is a passage about the kitchen chimneys:

Sliding between the walls and driving through the floors, the hot channels funneled heat, smoke and smells as they twisted past receiving rooms and jinked around chambers, wriggled past corridors and galleries, leaving enigmatic traces in the fabric of the house. Purposeless buttresses bulged from walls. Smoke percolated through cracks in the plaster. Certain corners of the house were inexplicably hot and chambers adjoining both the East and the West Wings were infiltrated by the smells of roasting meat, or baking bread, or soup…

The whiffs and stinks came and went. Hotspots drifted, as if the flues of whirling fire and fumes writhed within the massive stonework, splitting and rejoining, rearing and rising until the thick brick fingers broke into the root stores and apple lofts under the eaves, driving through the attics where the maids huddled in the depths of winter, pressing themselves to the hot walls….”

And speaking of pressing oneself to hot walls……John’s illicit love affair with Sir William’s daughter, Lucretia,  is both a retelling of the passion of the first man and woman and a great sexual and romantic feast. He is ordered to cook tempting dishes for Lady Lucretia when she refuses to eat in protest of her father’s plan to marry her off to the nasty cousin. It’s a great chapter in the book while John enables her rebellion by cooking complex dishes that are like containers hiding secret meals to make it appear she keeps her protest fast. When John finds pages from a book of romantic poems in her room, he recreates one of the poems lines about feeding one’s love steaming fruits in cream–unfortunately, this dish was so delicious, she gets caught eating it. Words become real abundance in his hands. Later when they become lovers, he makes a belt described in another love poem out of spun sugar and they literally take turns wearing it and eating it off each other.

I found some aspects of the story confusing — there were quite  few minor characters that got muddled for me. Also, there was a war episode which temporarily interrupted the wedding feast plans for Lucretia and her nasty cousin which didn’t seem terribly important other than to provide an embarrassing injury to the groom that John mocked in a dish at the eventual wedding banquet.

As I have spent time thumbing through the book hunting for passages, many of the themes of the novel have sharpened and enhanced my understanding of the author’s intention. Initially, I could not understand Lucretia and John’s relationship at the end of the book at all. After I flipped around and reread certain passages, I think I understand what happened to them and why. Overall, I really enjoyed this novel and believe I could (should) read it again to savor the little nuances and enigmas.

Rating 4/5

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