This was an electronic advanced reader copy from NetGalley.
I have never read anything by this author before, but asked for the ARC based on the book's description on NetGalley and I received it. It wasn't until I was more than half way through the book that I decided to look up Lawrence Norfolk and learn a little bit more about this writer, and was impressed with his credentials, although I can hardly claim to have a strong interest in reading his other works, as they sound way above what I would be capable of reading and understanding! I was happy I was reading this on my Kindle, since I did use the built in dictionary quite a lot. Norfolk uses a lot of vocabulary you do not generally hear in today's world, most of it referring to more ancient times. This book is set in the 1600's in England, beginning right before the English Civil War. But another added feature of this novel is the ancient language used before each section to describe the "receipts" used for John Saturnall's Feast, essentially, a cookbook.
John Sandall is a lonely little boy who lives with his mother, Shunned by the villages children as a "witch's son," his mother is an herbalist/healer/midwife who is regarded as a w itch by the Puritanical order that has grown up in England after the Reformation and is trying to take over the worship in small villages. The Puritans in the village are fanatical and frightening, and the preacher, Marpot, is a hateful and controlling man who incites the village to violence against John and his mother, even after they have finally been accepted there. John and his mother are forced to flee, while their home is destroyed. They escape the wilderness nearby, surviving on their wits, and his mother continues to educate John to her ways with a special cookbook of sorts that she has managed to save.
A very basic knowledge of the history of England is helpful when reading this book, and I often found myself looking up names and events to learn more about the period, people and places, but Norfolk purposely leaves much of the information provided in the story very vague, almost as if it really doesn't matter, and truthfully, the main characters are the most important ones to try and understand. John ends up at nearby Buckland Manor, as an orphan, but because of his uncanny culinary skills, he is allowed to stay on as a Kitchen Boy, instead of being sent to the poorhouse. There he meets Lady Lucretia, the motherless child of the manor, who often fasts in a passive rebellion against her father. He also meets a whole host of other interesting and important folks that contribute to life at the manor.
This book has quite a complicated plot, and the reader really needs to pay attention to names of places, to the many characters and to the thoughts of the John and Lucy. The writing is extraordinary and the story is quite moving. I loved the way the author manages to keep things happening without becoming stagnant, or stuck in the many plot details, the book has a very natural flow and feeling, and without that, it would be very easy to become mired down by this novel. The last book I read with a plot this complicated was David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which I really enjoyed, and the style of writing is similar: many clues and hints are given to the reader from the very start of the novel, and it is usually with hindsight that the reader suddenly recognizes them.
A delightful book, challenging yet fun reading, especially for those who enjoy history and esoteric stories with amazing people, both real and fictional.