Beginning with “Lempriere’s Dictionary,” Lawrence Norfolk has woven together history, myth and romance in three ambitious novels whose intricacies occasionally outrun the average reader’s attention span. He’s reined himself in just a little in his new novel, which focuses with more control on a single protagonist’s odyssey without sacrificing the glittering erudition and gorgeous prose of his previous works.
We meet John Saturnall as a ragged boy tied to the saddle of a mule, in 17th-
century England. His mother, Susan, once worked for the Lord of Buckland, but a fanatical local preacher accused her of witchcraft and incited villagers to burn down her hut. She flees with John to Buccla’s Wood, a place of ancient mysteries that John will spend the next quarter-century deciphering.
He declares his allegiance to those mysteries with his self-
chosen surname. In a haunting passage, we learn that Saturnall is the name taken by those who remain faithful to the Roman god Saturnus. He created “the first garden,” Susan tells her son. “Every green thing grew here. . . . The first men and women lived in amity together. They knew no hunger or pain. Saturnus’s people kept the Feast.” The priests of the “jealous god” Jehovah destroyed this garden, but one of the old god’s followers brought the Feast to Buckland. Even after they were forced into hiding, Saturnus’s people preserved the Feast in a book that recorded its celebration across the generations. “We have always kept the Feast,” Susan says as she shows the book to her son. “Now you will keep it, John. For us all.”
Norfolk’s grafting of the biblical story of the Garden of Eden onto a mythical Roman golden age of peace, abundance and equality is a tad murky in the particulars. But the Feast is a lovely metaphor for an inclusive, joyous vision of life’s physical pleasures, manifestations of the splendors of creation meant to be shared by everyone. This is Saturnus’s legacy, passed from Susan to John as she teaches him to relish and identify the aromas in each plant and herb. His talents win him an apprenticeship in the kitchen at Buckland Manor, evoked with a wealth of savory details that inspire longing for a taste from each pot bubbling over the open hearth.
It also wins John the attention of Sir William’s willful daughter, Lucretia, who must marry her doltish cousin Piers Callock to keep Buckland Manor intact. Lucretia refuses all food to protest her forced engagement, and John gets the dangerous assignment of tempting her appetite. In a series of funny, seductive scenes, he gains Lucretia’s confidence by hiding delicious meals within crusts that can be resealed, so she can eat but still appear to be fasting. They are on the verge of their first kiss when Sir William’s steward walks in to see that she has broken her fast.
But bigger threats are afoot. Buckland Manor is menaced by the victorious Puritans, latest adherents of the punitive form of religion that destroyed Saturnus’s garden, demonized earthly joys and proclaimed true happiness achievable only after death — and only to a select few. (Norfolk’s portrait of the king’s opponents is decidedly lopsided, but it serves the purposes of his narrative, which is brilliantly plotted throughout.) The disruptions of the English Civil War free John and Lucretia to enjoy a brief idyll, spiced with ravishing descriptions of dishes from the Feast that he recites to her as the impoverished pair sip water and eat radishes.
There’s not a lot of intellectual or thematic coherence in the revelation that Norfolk offers in the novel’s final pages, but that doesn’t really matter. Shimmering with wonder, suffused with an intense and infectious appreciation for the gifts of bountiful nature, “John Saturnall’s Feast” is a banquet for the senses and a treat for anyone who relishes masterful storytelling.
Smith, a contributing editor at the American Scholar, reviews books frequently for The Post, the Los Angeles Times and AARP.
JOHN SATURNALL’S FEAST
By Lawrence Norfolk
Grove. 410 pp. $26