In her latest book Jenny Hobbs has taken on the clubby SA business community and added an extra dimension to a call made regularly in the FM for stricter regulation of business practices. In Quain, Hobbs has created a deeply flawed individual. He is an opaque, multifaceted character, lovable but nefarious, ruthless but soft, leaving hefty bequests to his down-and-out friends and helping establish a Johannesburg renaissance… The opacity of Quain’s life is a metaphor for the lack of transparency in SA businesses. None of his circles converges, everyone is kept in the dark. Only as his life fades does he shine a light on it and find it wanting. Dobermann represents morality, and her absolution is as necessary to Quain as his acceptance of her socialist conscience is to her. Hobbs is a powerful storyteller. She secured her credentials with The Sweet-Smelling Jasmine, another novel based on headlines, but one that will live on in my mind.
What happens when a wealthy, powerful businessman is faced with his own mortality? What truths will be revealed as he opens his life to the scrutiny of an old friend, and what does that mean for both the teller of the tale and the listener? These are the major themes of Jenny Hobbs’ novel. Angus Quain is dying and in his death throes he chooses to allow a friend, Faith Dobermann, to see tantalising glimpses of the secret facets of his life. Hobbs has created a skilful tale of the shifting of the balance of power between two people involved in what is essentially a deathbed conversation over a longish period of time. While the novel explores on the one hand the murky underside of big business and a city that draws its meaning from transactions, it also examines the landscape of friendship and the manner in which personal circumstances informs it. Hobbs has written a finely structured novel. She constructs a hall of mirrors and then allows her characters to be revealed in an unflinching manner. This is an important novel about modern life and Hobbs remains one of South Africa’s better observers of life and the meaning, or the lack, of it.
Jenny Hobbs is a true professional. In three novels now she has shown remarkable consistency with subjects as diverse as apartheid atrocities, childhood memories of a small Natal South Coast community and this exposé of Joburg big-business scandals. The plot concerns a divorced lady historian who has a friendship of 15 years with accounting tycoon Angus Quain. But all this changes when Angus announces he has stomach cancer. The whole basis of the relationship undergoes a subtle switch. Just as important is the very human story of Quain’s decline and the historian narrator’s faithful watch over her friend’s hopelessly brave fight against encroaching death.
Angus Quain is an eminent businessman and philanthropist, a man who hoisted himself from the wrong side of the tracks to become one of the most powerful men in the financial area. Long-divorced, he befriends Faith Dobermann and on every Saturday for 15 years the two meet for lunch at his club, until the day Angus announces that he has cancer. It is only then, in what will be the last year of his life, that Faith uncovers the many facets of Angus Quain. She begins to unpick the fabric of his life, revealing strands of silken brilliance but also slubs of corruption and fraud. She reveals a seam of corporate malfeasance, but also learns of Angus’s secret generosity. She is hurt to discover that she occupies only one compartment of many in his carefully designed life and sets out to uncover the others. Out of these compartments dance a marvellous array of characters: illegitimate children, dusky strippers, gay avocado farmers and a government minister who is also a traditional healer. Looming large are the denizens of big business and their questionable deals, an element of the story that culminates in Angus Quain finally clearing his conscience – and in so doing, fingering some of his fellow sharks. The Telling of Angus Quain is a contemporary story about contemporary Johannesburg. It is mercifully about people, not politics – and those people are real, rounded and believable.
The energy, drive and ruthlessness that built Johannesburg from a mining camp and frontier town into a sophisticated metropolis and financial centre form the background to Jenny Hobbs’ latest novel. Hobbs is one of our more accomplished authors … her novels are a good read with strong plots, credible characters, familiar backgrounds, easy dialogue and a human morality that is not mawkish… The central character, Angus Quain, is a self-made businessman in Johannesburg, a rough diamond who has wheeled and dealed his way to fortune from humble beginnings in Cape Town. When we meet him, he is dying of cancer. His story is told through Faith Dobermann, a writer cum historian. The world she describes is one of power and position, but also exposes the culture of greed, the corporate underworld and a prestigious man’s club which is both misogynistic and anachronistic. Much of it echoes recent scandals, both here and abroad, and is wonderful material for a juicy soap. And there may be a few pink faces around the Stock Exchange wondering whether they have been her role models.