Book review: Kitchen Boy by Jenny Hobbs.

2011-04-27 00:00

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. The congregation have plenty of time for their memories, as one of the officiating priests is exceedingly verbose, and determined to give them their money’s worth, and more. However, through the digressions, the concerns of the undertakers, the surreptitious looking at watches, we see how J. J. Kitching — the source of his nickname, Kitchen Boy — was formed by his wartime experiences.

This is not an anti-war novel, though it never glamourises war. It is more a snapshot of life in South Africa, and in KwaZulu-Natal in particular, during the years leading up to and following the Second World War. Kitchen Boy’s wife, sister, son and daughter are the most fully realised and interesting characters, though Durban’s feisty black female mayor is also a delight.

But, maybe some of the more peripheral figures could have been dispensed with to concentrate on those most intimately concerned with the central character. At times it is tricky to remember who is who, and why they are important. But overall, it is an entertaining slice-of-life read.

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