Monday, September 17, 2012

It had all the ingredients, but this feast failed to satisfy

John Saturnall's Feast
by Lawrence Norfolk

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. I will admit that the second half of the novel was more compelling than the first, but that’s not really saying that much.

Regular readers of my reviews know that it’s rare for me to be so negative, especially for a novel of literary merit. Clearly this book did not work for me, but seems to have resonated far more with other readers. I am sure it’s a fine book, but I am happy to at last move on.

1 comment:

  1. I never got very far with this book (100 pages at most) but as far as applicable, I totally agree with your review - I felt exactly the same, even to the point where I think it's a fine book, just not for me!