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Customer Review

on 21 October 2012
John Saturnall's Feast

I have never written a review on Amazon before, but felt a need to do so for this book, to insert a sceptical note in what is otherwise (in these early days since its publication) an almost uninterrupted litany of praise. I noticed a couple of people who gave it five-star reviews inserted some line about it perhaps not being to everyone's taste. I can offer living evidence of that.

The merits of the book first. It really is quite evocative in its descriptions of a cornucopian, heavily populated seventeenth-century kitchen. A lot of research has gone into this, but you don't get the 'dead hand of research effect' so common in historical novels: the details of food preparation, ingredients, recipes, arcane kitchen roles and duties are brought together in a convincing and imaginatively compelling brew (it's impossible to avoid culinary metaphors talking about this book). I felt that this was probably the heart of the author's vision for the book, and he brings it off superbly.

The problem for me was that this frankly isn't enough to make a novel, or not a novel of this conventional kind, anyway. A plot is needed. Norfolk does supply us with one, of a fairly conventional ilk (protagonist emerges from hideous childhood bearing the odd scar; love triumphs across class barriers; the undeserving get their dues; the deserving live happily ever after) but it's all fairly formulaic and not especially engaging. I never at any point reading this novel felt a strong desire to find out what happened next, which has to be a bad sign.

The characterisation is especially weak. There are a lot of characters, but quite large numbers of them, especially in the Fremantle household in which the bulk of the novel is set, never really establish themselves as anything more than names. Of the more worked-up characters, none struck me as especially memorable. Lucretia is particularly underdeveloped, in a way that is problematic for the whole romantic element. She seems to me entirely a cipher, doing exactly what is needed for the plot at any given moment, but without any coherent character that I could discern. Some elements of her story are simply laughable, such as the supposed climactic moment near the end where she deliberately masquerades as a whorish seductress in order to put Saturnall off her and hence spare his feelings (at least, I think that's supposed to be what happens ... I must say I had rather given up on the novel by that point).

The villains are also a weak point: Clough, Marpot, Piers Callock. I didn't think anyone did completely unregenerate 'baddies', without a hint of redemptive complexity any more - or at least not three of them in a single novel. Frankly, they are clichés. Marpot is even given the arch-villainous characteristic of 'cold blue eyes' at one point, just in case we were in any doubt of his general iniquity.

I found it interesting that Nofolk's end note spoke of the book having had a 'long and strange' route to publication, and wonder whether the very mixed quality of the resulting work has anything to do with that. It IS genuinely mixed - there are some very good things amid the less good, as I said. To be honest, though, I wouldn't say the language or the evocation of seventeenth century life were any stronger at their best than what is found in Maria McCann's 'As Meat Loves Salt', for example, and I found that a far superior novel to this in terms of character and plot. The Civil War background is also better exploited in McCann. It seemed rather perfunctory here.
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