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by Lawrence Norfolk

4*

This is a delightful book that I liked very much, but not without reservation. The premise of a universal Feast, the feast of life that dates back to a time before the Romans was a fascinating one, but it got lost in the welter of detail about the many more mundane feasts of a great house in the seventeenth century. The everyday story, of John’s slow rise from scullery boy to head cook and his unrequited love for the spoiled and wilful lady of the house was slow to unfold, but quietly fascinating. For a while, I became completely enveloped in the gentle pace of these lives, lived by the seasons and the days of feast and fast.

But the pacing is odd. It starts out very slow, with John’s early life, as he learns to read, learns of meadow herbs and seasonings and how to cook – from his mother and from a near-sacred book, learning about ‘The Feast’. There’s an almost aching attention to detail, but so beautifully described that the lack of a solid story hardly seems to matter. This slow pace continues as John leaves his home to learn how to cook in the kitchens of the great house where his mother learned her art, then everything suddenly speeds up as we race through the Civil War and John leaves to fight for the king, then hits breakneck speed; John leaves the house for – who knows where? His years away are omitted completely. And then he returns for something of a predictable end.

Maybe the pace is meant to reflect the times? The daily round for the people in those days must have been as predictable, as un-changing as the seasons and holy calendar that confined and consumed their lives. The sudden advent of war – and such a cruel war, bringing with it unimaginable destruction, undreamed of change – must have come like a bolt of cruel lightning, burning everything ever-known and replacing it with harsh religion and cold misery. If this was Lawrence Norfolk’s intention, I have to say, I don’t truly think it works. I personally loved the slow un-folding of the pre-war chapters with all their fine-worked details, the sudden change of pace and omitting of important chapters in his protagonist’s life was just confusing.

For all its fine-crafted beauty, there is something empty at the heart of this book. There’s a wealth of detail about the things that go on, but very little depth of feeling because the characters never really came alive – and there are some marvellous characters: the childhood sweetheart subsumed into the church, the manic puritan priest, the foppish wastrel suitor, and Heron Boy! Who was heron boy? Where did he come from, what was his story? I would have loved to know. All of the characters could have been magnificent, but none of them came fully fleshed, they all seemed devices to hang the story and the details on. John Saturnall was the most nebulous of all, he seemed somehow colourless and ghostly; at times I felt I could see right through him. So much happens to this man, but there’s never any sense of anticipation, of wondering or conjecturing what might happen next, because he never felt like a real man to me and so nothing he said or did could move me.

And after all my moaning, you’re probably wondering why I’ve given this book 4 stars. Three stars would simply not do it justice; there’s a beauty in the language and a depth of intricate detail that’s astonishing and lovely. I did enjoy it very much, but couldn’t love it.

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