One of the outstanding qualities of this book is the pitch-perfect ear that Jenny Hobbs has for Seffrican English, especially that of generations ago… Another quality is the way she has re-created, possibly even rescued, memories of a way of life that has been overtaken by the winds of change since 1945… A third wonderful feature of the book is the Pat Barker-like sympathy that she feels for men who went to war as boys and came back as broken men. These men were a race apart. “The men who did not – or could not – join up would never understand the current that sparked between those who had gone to war, even among the captured who had sat in POW camps out of the action.” But the price of glory was high, maybe too high… This is a thoughtful, beautifully written book.
In choosing the wryly un-PC title Kitchen Boy for her latest novel, Jenny Hobbs is clearly aware of the resonances of colonial terminology and the shades of war in a name so similar to Kitchener, and though it has an ironic side it is also a neat encapsulation of the themes of her story. Her protagonist is JJ Kitching, whose name has been affectionately mangled by adoring rugby fans shouting him on as a Springbok wing; so, far from being a male house servant, he was one of the (extremely) privileged for whom the highlights were war and rugby. Hobbs explores all this at JJ’s funeral through the many eulogies delivered and the memories of his friends and family…
Most S African families have been touched by war, often having to grapple not only with its intrinsic horrors but also the tough differences of opinion that arise within and between generations regarding such notions as duty, service to the nation and “a just war”… Hobbs touches on these issues, but presents a largely sympathetic portrait of a man who did all the expected things – he joined up in World War II, flew bombers, survived as a prisoner of war and came home to play rugby for this country. But at heart a bitter sense of guilt left over from an incident in a POW camp made him irascible and difficult…
The strength of this book lies in its varied and rich characterisation… Hobbs creates three black women characters with great insight and warmth, nicely counterbalancing the soldiers and reflecting how previously invisible people are now so often the stable pillars of our society…. In this unpretentious and warm-hearted book full of rugby, war and family secrets, it is entirely appropriate that the hymn sung at JJ’s funeral should be “He who would valiant be…’ and one wonders whether Hobbs may also be one of those whose sense of fairness may be mistaken for nostalgia.
This novel opens with the death of the main character, and ends with his burial, by which time Jenny Hobbs has created a believable man. The story of his life is told mainly through the thoughts of those who attend his funeral at the cathedral in Durban, the city where he has lived most of his life. The reader comes to see him as a boy, a war hero, a Springbok rugby player and a family man. And also to see and understand the guilty secret that has informed his life, post-1945 … This is not an anti-war novel, though it never glamorises war.
Kitchen Boy is an unusual literary take on the life of a former rugby Springbok and war hero. The novel opens with the death of the old hero and moves to his funeral service, the first of several braided narratives… Dipping into the recollections of his gathered friends, family and incidental figures, she builds up a compound picture of J J Kitching that spans his youth, war service and life afterwards. She also uses the service to orchestrate a variety of effects that feed into the rich structure and scope of the novel.
There is broad comedy in figures such as the pompous bishop and the lugubrious undertaker . There are tensions that unfold within the Kitching family … There is the pathos of the aging MOTHs who have come to honour their old comrade-in-arms… The recollections of the ancient warriors present a moving picture of Kitching’s war and the effects of trauma on his POW companions’ life choices after the war… I was impressed by the broad sweep of the novel, and by its clever marshalling of numerous perspectives to create the portrait of a compromised hero. In fact, I was moved by the dignified pain of the old soldiers and the way they move to resolve their differences. Kitchen Boy is a novel with heart.
The catchment readership for SA author Jenny Hobbs’s latest novel is a wide one, for it includes rugby players, religion and wars. The title comes from the chief protagonist’s name, John Joseph Kitching, a war hero and former Springbok rugby player who has died at a rich old age, taking a shameful war secret with him. His friends, and an enemy, gather to laud him and damn the war that killed many… The story is rooted in Kwa-Zulu Natal, where Hobbs grew up. It’s also set in European POW camps where Kitchen Boy and his comrades battle the cold, the lice and German brutality… An uncle of Hobbs was taken prisoner and she sets out to keep the memory of him and others like him alive for her nine grandchildren to whom she dedicates the book: “May they live in peace and never experience war.”