Thursday, November 1, 2012

John Saturnall's Feast, by Lawrence Norfolk

In this abundant age, eating has, perhaps, never been more fraught with meaning. Local or organic? Meat or vegetable? Head-to-tail or choice cuts? On a molecular level, we are what we eat, but there is now more to it than that. Ethical and even spiritual paths are open to us: we can eat how we live.

Lawrence Norfolk's latest novel might appear to be a run-of-the-mill upstairs-downstairs romance girded with the agony of superstition and bigotry. But he elevates John Saturnall's Feast, a seventeenth century tale, with a sprinkling of food mysticism and a generous helping of lyrical writing. The result is a mundane plot with some thoughtful themes, much like a hearty, yet bland, rice pudding studded with the occasional currant.

We meet John as a young boy, vulnerable and hungry. His mother is gone, and somehow his village's narrow-minded superstition is to blame. Through flashbacks, John reveals a painful yet beautiful childhood, gilded with awe at his mother's wisdom and mysteries. She was a healer and midwife but, as we learn, she was also a keeper of the Feast.

Norfolk never makes it clear exactly what he means by the Feast, but this ambiguity saves the book from the plot conventions that otherwise hamper it. His seventeenth century kitchen is alive with detail and rich, period dishes, and his characters' hard-scrabble lives are convincing. Their emotions seem sometimes forced by the necessities of the plot, but their appetites for both food and love are what keep us turning the pages. And in the end we ask ourselves, for whom do I keep the Feast? John Saturnall finds his answer. Now it's our turn.

1 comment:

Audra said...

nice review -- I had forgotten this one after initially seeing it -- my curiosity is piqued after your comments!

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