|Monday, 25 July 2011 10:13|
Written by Jenny Hobbs
Review by Jessica Blignaut
Jenny Hobbs’s latest novel, Kitchen Boy, opens with the death of its protagonist, JJ Kitching, and culminates in his burial. Kitching, or Kitchen Boy, as he was nicknamed by his adoring fans, was a larger than life figure, whose stories ranged from the battlefields of the Second World War, to the battles played out in sports stadiums during his glorious rugby career.
War hero, successful businessman, ex-Springbok rugby player, and family man – Kitching’s death draws different reactions from those who knew him. Now lying dead in a Durban cathedral, Kitching’s life is relived from the viewpoints of various characters as his interminable funeral drags on. Comrades in arms who served with him during the unspeakably awful Second World War; rugby teammates, now retired and watching from the sidelines; his wife and children, reflecting on him as husband and father, and various other minor characters such as the devoted family retainer, interfering aged sister, and cherished young grandson – each character’s viewpoint illuminates a facet of Kitching’s personality, contributing a tile to the mosaic of his life.
The verbose Bishop Chauncey presides over the funeral, attended by grandstanding politicians, past and present rugby Springboks, war veterans, and the media, and whilst the ceremony threatens at times to tip over into laugh-out-loud farce, this is tempered by poignant reminiscences and nostalgic memories. During the proceedings, Kitchen Boy emerges as a complex character, scarred by the memory of WWII and carrying a shameful secret to his grave.
Hobbs’s fifth novel is a thoroughly enjoyable and very readable tale. In addition to describing Kitching’s life, she paints a portrait of life in South Africa, particularly KwaZulu-Natal, in the years leading up to the Second World War, and the post-war fallout. The book offers a critical view of war, refusing to glamourise it, and demonstrates its power to reduce even the bravest of men. However, despite the atrocities of war which the novel examines, there is a vein of humour which runs through the tale, ensuring it remains an enjoyable, witty work.