Dad with a lot to get off his chest

Trumpet by Jackie Kay Picador pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
In 1989 award-winning poet Jackie Kay read a four-line obituary in a newspaper announcing the death of 74-year-old jazz musician Billy Tipton. It was at Tipton's funeral, she read, that most of his friends and family discovered that "he" was, in fact, a woman. But what touched her most was a comment from Tipton's adopted son: "He will always be Daddy to me." Her first novel, Trumpet, takes the two strands of this story - a radical reconstruction of identity, and the willing suspension of disbelief fundamental to its success - and combines them to present a jazz-inflected medley of narrative voices intent on revealing the artifices of self-definition. It helps that Kay, born in 1961 of a mixed-race liaison, was adopted by a white Glaswegian couple, and has addressed the issue of identity in her poetry. Her ear is attuned to the rhythms and cadences of reminiscence.

Her novel opens as Joss Moody's widow, Millie, flees the attentions of the press, avid for her "husband's" story, and retreats to her childhood home in a remote corner of Scotland. Meanwhile, her adopted son, Colman, previously unaware of his father's secret, stays in London, furious, humiliated, and intent on revenge.

Kay's narrators come to terms with their loss through a series of flashbacks. Moody's death has, at the same time, personal and existential implications for all of them. For Millie, shrunken with grief, even the musty smells of their old, shared house resonate with his presence. Kay is not afraid to celebrate love, and Millie's elegiac reflection on her late husband is underscored with passion and an intense sensitivity to her surroundings. She does not attempt to explain Moody's decision to live life as a man, recognising that what is ultimately strange and different about him is his identity. "Lots of people have secrets, don't they? ... What kind of world would it be without them?" Her acceptance of Joss is total; every morning she would wrap her husband's breasts in bandages: "I had to help him get dressed so that he could enjoy his day and be comfortable." More prurient revelations are left for tabloid journalist Sophie Stones, who exploits Colman's anguish in paying him to participate in her newspaper's expose.

Kay's poetic skills ensure the authenticity of each narrator's voice. Millie's refined detailing of grief demands that she be treated as a widow, and not a freak show: "If I could just say I am lonely, how lovely and ordinary that sounds." Colman is more dependent on cliche which, when it runs dry, dwindles into aggressive incoherence: "My father didn't have a dick. My father had tits. My father had a pussy. My father didn't have any balls. How many people had fathers like mine?" Sophie Stones justifies her prying in flat, businesslike tones. Hers is a world of retail therapy and shock-horror headlines: "Colman is at this very minute in (Joss's) mother's house. Hopefully, he'll be getting her story right now. The Mother of Joss Moody. I have a newspaper picture of her in my head."

Kay's powerful rendition of everyday speech combines perfectly with the themes and construction of her story. Each viewpoint - whether that of Millie, Colman, or those of friends and fellow musicians, even the undertakers - implys the necessity for self-validation, but, ultimately, confirms the conciliatory powers of diversity. As each character grapples, in his or her own way, with Joss's undefinability, they are united in a common task.

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