Trumpet by Jackie Kay
Pantheon Books, 278 pages, $23.
In the hands of a less graceful writer, Jackie Kay's Trumpet would have
been a polemic about gender with a dollop of race thrown in for good measure.
But Kay has taken the most tabloid topic possible and produced something at
once more surprising and more subtle: a rumination on the nature of love and
the endurance of a family.
Be warned before reading on: I can't describe Kay's success without revealing
a major early plot point. In a reverse Crying Game of sorts, the death
of famed jazz trumpeter Joss Moody leads to the revelation that he was a she.
The forward motion of the novel is split between the reactions of two family
members: Millie, the widow who knew, and Colman, the son who didn't.
It is achievement enough for a first novel to capture two such dissimilar
voices well. Millie's voice is contemplative and sad ("There is nothing behind
or in front of me: just me and the wind and the sea"); Colman's is angry, given
to casual epithet ("The children of famous people aren't allowed to be
talentless, ordinary fuckwits like me"). Though their grief is shared, their
voices are perfectly distinct.
But rather than be content with these two, Kay adds other perspectives: old
friends, the housekeeper, a funeral director, and a doctor (among others). Each
voice has its particular clarity, yet every one adds to the same insistent
mantra: surprise, surprise, but wasn't he quite a fella after all? This works
best in a chapter titled "The Funeral Director," which is a tour de force of
character, plot, and theme. It is this mortician who provides a perfect
epigram: "The dead are so demanding. The dead are larger than life."
The only false note in all this is Kay's least likable creation: Sophie
Stones, a tabloid-style writer. She is rendered as a flat villain, a cardboard
shrew unethically plying Colman with liquor and flirtation, when she's not
scheming or shopping. "The confessions of a Colman Moody are the goods, the
blood, the entrails. I can't help myself." She's so unredeemed that even she's
aware she's the bad guy.
But I can forgive the novel this blemish when there is such beauty around it.
The centerpiece of the narrative is a five-page chapter from the point of view
of Joss, who's ready to cross over to the afterlife. The literary equivalent of
jazz, the language rises and falls, repeating a theme and then seemingly
abandoning it before returning to pick up the thread. "He is the music. The
blood dreaming. The long slow ache. All the light is in the music -- soaring,
The novel itself contains all that -- dreaming, aching, and soaring. It makes
grief potent without melodrama and redemption credible without preaching.
Trumpet plays like a sad old song that makes you cry -- but one you hope
will never end.
-- David Valdes Greenwood