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Jackie Kay

Jackie Kay
London 1998

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The protagonist of Jackie Kay’s first novel, Trumpet, is dead before the story begins. He is Joss Moody, a black Scottish jazz trumpeter, who has left a wife in deep mourning, and an adopted son, the defiantly ordinary and untalented Colman, in deep shock. For the posthumous medical report has revealed Joss Moody, his tall and handsome father, revered in the jazz world, to be a woman. Joss’s widow, Millie, holes up in a Scottish fishing village in a house she and her husband shared, reeling from the press coverage of her marriage and overwhelmed by grief. Colman meanwhile, raging against what he perceives as his father’s duplicity and perversion, colludes with tabloid journalist Sophie Stones in a facile and sensationalist rewriting of Moody’s history. Trumpet is, in itself, the other side, or sides, of the story it is told in a multitude of voices. There is Millie, whose faintly sepia-toned reminiscences conjure the romance and charisma of Moody; Colman, whose narrative strains with expletives and inarticulate anger; Big Red McCall, his fiercely loyal drummer; the doctor, registrar and funeral director who all literally and figuratively expose Moody; and a host of neighbours and other minor characters, all struggling to balance their memories and perceptions of Moody with the lurid revelations. The skill of the novel is that these disparate voices are given weight and import, and that the reactions of the various characters, although they encompass disgust and prurient curiosity, are never predictable. Even such a minor character as the confused registrar, who in a lesser novel might just be used as a plot-driving mechanism, responds to Millie’s feelings as widow with delicacy and deference.

Millie observes that Joss spoke of his female self in the third person: the female self was his third person, an alternative self. But as Trumpet unravels, it becomes apparent that Moody wasn’t alone in exploring and creating alternative selves. Millie is a faithful, conventional and deeply loving wife, who, in colluding with Moody’s reconstruction of his sexual identity, led what in some respects was a bizarrely unconventional life. The very milieu that Moody inhabited was mocked by the young Colman as a construct: the jazzmen, with their way-out names and boozy lifestyles, trying to recapture the world of long-dead Dukes and Counts. But Colman himself, the brutal realist, always refers to his father as "he", in his angriest moments never quite angry enough to give up on his "Daddy". Whether Moody has lived a fiction or created an alternative reality in becoming a man is the riddle at the heart of this subtle and humane novel, which Colman must explore to have any hope of resolution.

Reviewed by Helena Smith


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