When jazz trumpet star Joss Moody dies the world learns that he was really a woman, spending over 40 years with his breasts bound, in men’s clothing, and avoiding situations where he might be discovered.
Trumpet however isn’t his story, of how he lived that way. It is the story of those around him, particularly his widow, Millie, and his adopted son, Colman. It is the story of how people identify, and are identified. Joss was black, Millie white, both Scots, their son brought up in London.
Jackie Kay, herself a Scot of mixed parents and openly lesbian, does several things in her debut novel. Most movingly she gives a potent, elegiacal voice to Millie. None of the rest would work if Millie’s grieving didn’t carry the reader. Equally she conveys the anguish and rage of Colman who feels betrayed by both his parents. (Millie of course knew Joss’ secret.) Kay also unsentimentally addresses aging through Millie and through Joss’ mother.
In Colman’s reflections on his experiences growing up as a young black man Kay manages the delicate balance of showing both actual racism and how the insidious presence of racism leads to anticipation of racism even when it isn’t openly there. There is a scene where the young black male Colman is boarding a train. As he walks down the carriage he mentally anticipates an issue with his seat, his ticket, his booking because of his colour. Why, because it has happened too many times before. It has been conditioned into him by white people jumping ahead of him in queues, taking his seat, assuming he is stupid, a criminal, a liar to the point where even a genuine mistake will be associated in his head with racist intent.
In another strand an unscrupulous self-absorbed journalist seeks to write an expose best seller about Joss the woman. In one telling chapter the drummer Big Red tells her bluntly that he never suspected anything: “Women think that men spend all their time gawking at the size of each other’s pricks in the bogs.” In one neat sentence Kay has pointed up one notorious failing of some male writers attempting to write women. Incidentally it isn’t always clear which of Joss’ friends did suspect or had an inkling but Kay makes it very clear that their loyalty as friends surpassed curiosity. They accept Joss as Joss. Colman learns to accept his father.
What Trumpet finally asserts is that Joss is his real identity. The strength of this beautifully told tale is not its analysis of grief, race, gender, age, nationality, sexuality, honesty, or love. It is how she sensitively expresses all of these things and conveys the fundamental truth that identity is what we choose it to be, not what others seek to impose upon us.