Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

John Saturnall’s Feast

by Lawrence Norfolk

Twelve years in the writing, John Saturnall’s Feast is a masterpiece from one of England’s greatest living historical novelists—and Norfolk’s most accessible book to date.

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 432
  • Publication Date September 10, 2013
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2173-8
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $17.00

About The Book

A beautiful, rich, and sensuous historical novel, John Saturnall’s Feast tells the story of a young orphan who becomes a kitchen boy at a manor house and rises through the ranks to become the greatest cook of his generation. It is a story of food, star-crossed lovers, ancient myths, and one boy’s rise from outcast to hero.

It is the early-seventeenth century and John Saturnall is a young boy grow­ing up in the village of Buckland. He is bullied by other children, who claim that his mother is a witch. When many of the children in the village become sick, John’s mother is blamed, and she and her son are chased out of the village. They move to a forest, where it is said a witch called Buccla once grew a legend­ary garden. Giving what little she can forage to her son, John’s mother soon dies of starvation, but sees to it that John is taken in at the Buckland Manor house, where he begins working in the kitchen.

At the manor, John’s keen palate and natural cooking ability allow him to quickly rise from kitchen boy to cook. However, he soon gets on the wrong side of Lady Lucretia, the aristocratic daughter of the lord of the manor. In order to inherit the estate, Lucretia must wed, but her fiancé is an arrogant buffoon whose face Lucretia thinks resembles a water parsnip. When Lucretia takes a vow of fasting until her father calls off her engagement, it falls on John to try to cook her delicious food that might tempt her to break her fast. As John serves meals to Lucretia, an illicit attraction grows between the pair, but fate is conspiring against them. Lucretia’s betrothal cannot be undone, and soon the household is thrown into chaos as Cromwell’s Roundheads go to war with the loyalist Cavaliers and the English Civil War begins.

Reminiscent of Wolf Hall, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and works by David Mitchell and Peter Carey, John Saturnall’s Feast is a brilliant work by a writer at the top of his powers, and a delight for all the senses.

Tags Literary


“An enthralling tale of an orphan kitchen boy turned master of culinary arts, with sumptuous recipes and intoxicatingly gorgeous illustrations.” —Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair

“Norfolk, the author of ornate period novels, here uses his talent for detail to evoke the life of a cook at a seventeenth-century British manor. . . . Norfolk creates a Manichaean struggle between Christian and pagan traditions, but this is ultimately less rewarding than the completeness of the physical world he describes.” —The New Yorker

“[A] sweeping tale of love and legend. Beautiful imagery and captivating details bring the story to life, while descriptions of culinary treats make one’s mouth water. [A] unique and sensuous blending of history and myth.” —Booklist (starred review)

“Food, history, and romance add layers of flavor to Norfolk’s lush new novel, his first in a decade . . . Alternating protagonist-hero John Saturnall’s charmingly antique recipes with the narrative of his occasionally brutal life, Norfolk depicts 17th-century England as a land savaged by political turmoil and religious persecutors. . . . Artfully told with folkloric undertones . . .Known for intellectual prose and complex plots, Norfolk this time out attempts to interweave time and senses, reality and myth, rewarding steadfast readers with savory recipes and a bittersweet upstairs downstairs love story.” —Publishers Weekly (boxed review)

“[Norfolk] will magnify this mysterious world for us, and he will, with an extraordinary use of ordinary language, make us see it not as a historical construct but as a place of wonder. . . . Mr. Norfolk’s use of child’s-eye view and lush, incantatory prose give the narrative a hushed air of magic, as though Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden were being recounted by the hero of Patrick Süskind’s Perfume.” —Judith Flanders, The Wall Street Journal

“Norfolk delivers a strong tale filled with atmosphere and the odd, telling detail that convinces.” —Michael Giltz, Huffington Post

“[A] wonderfully arcane novel. . . In the strict new world of Puritan repression, the pleasures of food take on a deliciously illicit flavor.” —Independent

“Lawrence Norfolk, historical novelist extraordinaire, inhabits the 17th century through its food. From the reign of Charles I through civil war, Cromwell’s protectorate and on to the restoration, we are treated to both lavish feasting and battlefield foraging, the politics of the high table and the hearthside use of medicinal herbs. . . . Norfolk’s ability to fold history in on itself, and to summon deep time, is as dazzling here as it was in his earlier novels: family genealogy becomes a myth of origins. . . . The material is fascinating. . . . Norfolk’s imagination is bigger and more abstract than the individual; he conjures so well the bustling bureaucracy of the 17th-century manor house, its systems of rights and obligations, its geographical and social significance. . . . The food writing is sensuous and exact. . . . You put the book down wanting to make it all.” —Justine Jordan, The Guardian

“A brilliant, erudite tale of cookery and witchcraft.” —AS Byatt, The Guardian

“Norfolk’s book is rich in detail. Vivid and sensuous, this is one of the finest novels published this year, and perfect to curl up with on a night.” —Janine Cook, The Independent

“[John Saturnall’s Feast] focuses with more control on a single protagonist’s odyssey without sacrificing the glittering erudition and gorgeous prose of his previous works. . . . 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. . . . Shimmering with wonder, suffused with an intense and infections appreciation for the gifts of bountiful nature, John Saturnall’s Feast is a banquet for the senses and a treat to anyone who relishes masterful storytelling.” —Wendy Smith, Washington Post

“Lawrence Norfolk is among the most ambitious and inventive of British writers. . . . Beautifully crafted . . . . The plot has a fairy tale quality. . . . The descriptions of food and cooking are simply wonderful, a delicious mixture of slant rhymes and creamy vowel sounds, peppered with poetic archaisms. . . . Such linguistic playfulness lifts the novel about the usual historical potboiler; I have not read a more purely enjoyable book all year.” —David Evans, Financial Times

“This is a welcome return from one of the deepest historical novelists around. John Saturnall’s Feast is . . . a pleasure piece. Which is probably why it sings. . . . The Civil War is lightly evoked, its confusion and ignominy done well enough that one remembers Norfolk reported from the war in Bosnia. . . . He creates a tantalizing interplay between hunger and imagination.” —Hermione Eyre, London Evening Standard

John Saturnall’s Feast is a rich mix of myth, superstition, romance and treachery, with elements of a fairytale set against the historical background of the English Civil War. . . . [it] is a remarkable achievement in which Norfolk brings to life the kitchens of the past, and captures the horrors of the Battle of Naseby and the religious zealotry of the era. It is a literary feast.” —Anna Creer, Sydney Morning Herald

“As complex and full-flavored as a fine wine. . . . Norfolk’s prose gives time and place the cachet of uncertainty, poverty, superstition and political rivalry. . . . The characters, adversaries, fanatics, kings and nobles, village folk and servants color the pages of John Saturnall’s Feast with classic dramas, friendship, romance, jealousies and accomplishments, John generously sharing the bounty of his gifts.” —Curled Up With a Good Book

“There’s a mythic quality to Lawrence Norfolk’s fourth historical novel. . . . it skillfully entangles folklore and foodlore. . . . Throughout the novel, food is shown to be both a source of sustenance and a thing of ritual; recipes are legacies, the threads connecting generations. . . . Norfolk’s writing is at its strongest when he’s describing the symbolic significance of certain dishes: spiced wine, delicate curls of spun sugar, slivers of almonds, and the flaking flesh of river fish.” —The Observer

“Dense in research and intellectual ambition. . . . Norfolk’s novels have always expanded their readers’ vocabularies, and John Saturnall’s Feast is no exception. . . . It is always part of his aim to enter into the psychology of a historical period through research and imagination.” —The Guardian

“All of Lawrence Norfolk’s novels—there have been two others since his spectacular debut, Lemprière’s Dictionary, in 1991—give the reader food for thought. However, his latest offering is stuffed with thoughts about food . . . in Norfolk’s skillful hands, there is no danger of verbal indigestion. John Saturnall’s Feast is the most accessible of his works. . . . Norfolk knows how to make words roll around the mouth. . . . Fantastical architecture and weird botany are a vivid background to the bloody conflict and swooning romance. Norfolk is an expert on obscure sources as well as sauces. His blend of horrid history and oddly credible fantasy deserves to be consumed by the masses.” —Sunday Telegraph

“Mouth-watering and quite beautifully written descriptions. . . . The random violence and lawlessness of the times—England’s own reign of terror—are convincingly drawn and the final chapters become almost unbearably tense.” —Daily Mail

“A lavishly detailed account of a fictional 17th-century British chef, set against the background of Great Britain’s Civil War. . . . Norfolk lavishes loving attention on the workings of a 17th-century manor-house kitchen. . . . interested in describing the making of food and the politics of the kitchen, delighting in the historical kitchen jargon. . . . The physical book itself is a work of art, full of beautiful illustrations and recipes (or ‘receipts’) in 17th-century style.” —Laura C.J. Owen, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Norfolk’s accessible, literary prose and his eye for the more curious, gritty period details give lingering depth and subtle spice to the traditional meat of his dish. . . . John Saturnall’s Feast filled me with a rather powerful urge to get out and inhale the rich greens of the English countryside. . . . a sweet and heady rush of reading pleasure.” —Helen Brown, The Daily Telegraph

“Lawrence Norfolk writes strange, ambitious and curiously entertaining literary fiction. . . . [John Saturnall’s Feast] tickles the senses (see the lovely woodcut illustrations) and the imagination.” —James Kidd, South China Morning Post

“On the cusp of an autumn glut, the publication of a novel about a sublime cook in a great house 380 years ago is perfectly timed. At its heart is a love story. . . . The kitchen vocabulary is rich, and Norfolk relishes it. . . . The feast itself is a triumph.” —The Lady

“A lyrical tale of historical havoc set in the English Civil War, with cookery as salvation.” —Marie Claire

“We haven’t come across a protagonist like John in a long while in fiction.” —Joe Waits, The Upcoming

“This is a book that rewards attentive reading with both lush detail and crystalline characterizations.” —Bethanne Patrick, Book Riot

“Sumptuous recipes and food descriptions intensify the seductive love story . . . a literary feast.” —Library Journal

“The many descriptions of the 17th century kitchen system make this novel alone worth reading. However, the other storyline about his feelings for the daughter of the lord of the manor add another layer of both lushness and deprivation. It’s a great story, one that leaves your senses stunned and wanting more.” —BookDwarf

Bookseller Praise

“Lawrence Norfolk puts twenty-first century readers very much in the time and place of his wonderfully rendered John Saturnall and the tempestuous seventeenth century England he and others inhabit in his delectable novel, John Saturnall’s Feast. Various forms of alchemy are presented here—from the combination of ingredients in just the amount to create meals fit for royalty, to the larger, more mysterious alchemies of love and fate and destiny. A writer whose work up to now has been read and savored but under-appreciated, Lawrence Norfolk with this most entrancing tale should find a vast, hungry readership, one which will be richly served in what he has created.” —Rick Simonson, Elliott Bay Book Company

“It has been several years and many thousands of pages since I last found my appetite so whetted by a historical love story, but John Saturnall’s Feast is an outstanding exception. Beginning in the years just before the English Civil War and carrying on to the Restoration, Lawrence Norfolk captures a historical moment when England’s puritan militias marched roughshod over the delicate blend of Christian myth and pagan belief that had ruled the countryside for generations. Set at the intersection of magic, history, food, and fiction, Norfolk’s novel is indeed a feast for the voracious book lover, as perfect for fans of Dorothy Dunnett and Philippa Gregory, as for devotees of Alice Waters.” —Jeff Waxman, Seminary Co-op Bookstore

“WOW! Boy meets girl never tasted so sweet. Norfolk’s got an eye for detail (and description!) like Thomas Keller.” —Geoffrey Jennings, Next Chapter Bookshop

“John Saturnall, raised by his healer mother, grows into an extraordinary cook in late 17th century England serving the landed gentry during political upheaval. His destiny lies in preserving the art of the ages old Feast where all are treated as equals at the table. Clandestine love, intolerance and intrigue all mix with recipes brought to life in lush language and served to a large court in a kind of mesmerizing dance. This novel has it all, a great story, writing at its finest and a beautifully designed book!” —Sheryl Cotleur, Book Passage


One of Publishers Weekly‘s “Books of BEA: Ten Promising Titles’
A September 2012 Indie Next Pick
Guardian Best Books of 2012
Wall Street Journal Best Fiction of 2012


Philip led John across the flagstone floor and pulled aside a thick leather curtain. A deep hum reached John’s ears. A short passage led to some steps and a set of heavy double doors. As he followed Philip, the din got louder. Then the boy heaved on the handle and the door swung open.

“This is the kitchen.”

A wave of noise broke over John, voices shouting, pots banging, pans clanging, knives and cleavers thudding on blocks. But he hardly heard the din. A great flood of aromas swamped the noise, thick as soup and foaming with flavors: powdery sugars and crystallized fruit, dank slabs of beef and boiling cabbage, sweating onions and steaming beets. Fronts of fresh-baked bread rolled forward, then sweeter cakes. Behind the whiffs of roasting capons and braising bacon came the great smoke-blackened hams that hung in the hearth. Fish was poaching somewhere in a savory liquor at once sweet and tart, its aromas braided in twirling spirals. . . . The sylphium, thought John. A moment later it was lost in the tangle of scents that rose from the other pots, pans and great steaming urns.

The rich stew of smells and tastes reaching into his memory to haul up dishes and platters. For a moment he was back in the wood. His mother’s voice was reciting the dishes and the spiced wine was settling like a balm in his stomach, banishing his cold and hunger, even his anger. He closed his eyes and breathed in the scents, drawing them deeper and deeper . . .