Lawrence Norfolk has always liked to centre his novels around a mixture of existing and constructed myth, and then let the action which happens centuries later be informed by or feed back into this network. His first book in twelve years, John Saturnall’s Feast, explores how the Civil War affected the career of a 17th century chef, the kitchens of great country houses and the symbolism of food. Its mythic centre is a pagan rite belonging to a pre-Christian British people, in which serving and eating food was the basis of an egalitarian community. In Charles I’s reign the one person left alive with the key to this feast is an orphan called John Saturnall, who has gone to work as a kitchen boy at the local manor. Meanwhile, Puritans are hunting witches and generally spoiling everybody’s fun. Each of the novel’s chapters opens with an emotionally significant recipe from Saturnall’s cookbook/memoir, replete with curly script and the occasional long s.

In terms of plot and narrative, the book is imaginative, quietly intricate and very well put together. All its strands are made to converge or mirror one another in a way that warms your heart. But on other fronts Norfolk seems to be holding back. Since his 1991 debut Lemprière’s Dictionary, his fictions have grown steadily more complex. He recently abandoned a novel which proved too tricky even for him, involving three time-frames and two hundred or so characters. What he’s offered instead (disregarding the framing device of the cookbook, which enables a discourse on the politics of art and the form of the novel) is far less architecturally ambitious.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed John Saturnall’s Feast I couldn’t help but find it odd that a writer with a reputation for being a cross between James Joyce and Leopold von Ranke has chosen to limit himself to the conventions of historical romance. The hero is an orphan with a mysterious paternity: part Heathcliff, part Marco Pierre White; we root for John because he’s good-looking, both talented and industrious (he can recognise almost any smell and rises to the top of the kitchen in a matter of years), and because he is constantly the butt of people’s prejudice. Upstairs, there is the melancholic lord of the manor, Sir William Fremantle, who has been mourning his wife for years; the love interest, Sir William’s daughter Lucretia: strong-willed, introspective and out of John’s league; and the vile, cowardly aristocratic love rival, Piers Callock. Saturnall becomes involved in the lives of his social superiors when King Charles likes one of his puddings. He is then called upon to tempt the anorexic Lucretia out of one of her fasts. This is when things heat up between them. We witness their relationship develop through a war and two government changes. With all its food-centric seduction, John Saturnall’s Feast sometimes reads like a Cromwellian version of Joanne Harris’s Chocolat.

Strangely for a novel which dwells mostly in the senses, the prose is evocative without being particularly stylish. Norfolk conjures the abundance of his tables through quantity of description rather than quality. Apart from a few beautiful exceptions (a lemon’s skin is ‘finely mottled,’ John’s mother’s cheeks are ‘pocked with shadow,’ a naked back appears at a distance as a ‘white length,’  a hearth ‘[grins] with a toothless welcome’) the sentences are rarely as delicious as the food they describe. Norfolk often ends up settling for imprecise phrases like ‘rich flavours’ and ‘pungent smells.’ It’s disappointing when a writer of his calibre gives us lines like, ‘[his]cold blue eyes stared out from under a heavy brow.’

Authors of novels set in the present day are sometimes given a hard time for being too promiscuous with their aesthetic sensibility. Excessive beautifying can look insincere in the modern world. But I can think of few subjects more suited to ‘fine writing’ than ceremonial food and folklore, set against the reign of the beauty-hating Puritans. John Saturnall’s Feast could have been a feast for its author’s stylistic eye (or nose – all those smells and tastes begging to be rendered exactly –) as well as the reader’s senses.

John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)

Tags: Fiction, Food, History, Love, Religion