Jonathan Amid - 2011-06-08 Untitled Document
Title: Kitchen Boy
Author: Jenny Hobbs
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Apart from being a well-known author, Jenny Hobbs is also the co-founder of the annual Franschhoek Literary Festival. Her fifth and latest work of historical fiction is entitled Kitchen Boy, a personal and deeply poignant novel that inspects the nature of heroism at a particular historical moment, exploring the ways that death and loss echo across a South African past to a colourful, multicultural present.
The death that frames the novel is that of the “Kitchen Boy” of the title, JJ Kitching, a successful businessman, legendary Springbok rugby player and Durbanite, a beloved husband, father and grandfather. Sandwiched between the rendition of the last moments of his life and the final words spoken at his funeral, Hobbs colours the page with slowly accumulative impressions of the man behind the nickname. Apart from the hordes of people that have come to pay their last respects at his funeral – ranging from current and former Sharks and Springbok rugby players to showboating politicians and a sizeable chunk of the media – Kitchen Boy’s close family share interesting, endearing and emotional anecdotes and reflections of time spent with a public hero and private recluse. We hear intimate and affecting details from Kitching’s wife and children, and learn more about a man that was deeply conflicted by the frozen face of war, even when performing magical feats on the rugby field.
Extensive and impressive research into the experiences of 32 Squadron, who for four days flew to drop supplies to besieged Polish partisans, forms the basis of the rest of the book. Alternating between the time of the funeral and the “remembered” past, between the grunt and grit of the rugby field and the muddy trenches of real war, Kitchen Boy uncovers the dramatic and traumatic events that haunt the elderly Kitching, the arc of a terrible secret that cuts to the heart of this proud, invulnerable public persona. The time and energy Hobbs has taken to meticulously recreate her WW2 narrative offers up an accomplished and affecting core, whereas the hysteria and hype around the death of an icon is varied with moments of cynicism, regret, celebration and camaraderie. We get a realistic and detailed depiction of all the emotions that surround death and its defeat of the body, yet Kitchen Boy also offers glimmering insight into a nation’s search for its soul and the need for heroes in uncertain times.
Ultimately, Hobbs evokes the undying imperative blighting of the culture of commodification and “disposable heroes” we live in: celebrate those men and women who give their lives for a cause, remember both their achievements and their feet of clay, and tell their stories with honesty, kindness and compassion.