Jackie Kay - Trumpet (1998)
- Alan Bissett
- 1 January 2005
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
Scotland’s writers are a cheeky lot when it comes to sampling. Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner couldn’t move for E’d-up Face scribes wielding references to acid house. The lilting tones of folk balladry drape the narrative voice of Sunset Song. My own debut, Boyracers, was as much influenced by the cars and girls epics of Bruce Springsteen as by any book I’d read. Scotland’s first foray into the ‘Jazz Novel’ – a quite formidable canon already containing JD Salinger, F Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac and Toni Morrison – comes courtesy of Jackie Kay.
Based on the true life story of Billie Tipton, the subject of Trumpet is Joss Moody, a jazz musician who, shortly after his death, is discovered to have been a woman. What could have been a one-joke gig or, worse, a routine fictionalised biography, becomes a witty, wiry, cutting, kinetic blast of a book, as emotionally moving as it is formally experimental. A rich cavalcade of perspectives come and go: Moody’s grieving widow; their son, simmering with resentment; a scandal-hungry ghost writer; even the confounded coroner who first notices something odd, and whose frantic search for a penis is the novel’s biggest laugh.
The effect of this wide range of tones, moods and voices reads like music itself – a shift through scenes that are a kind of blue or a fine romance or strange fruit – until we reach the startling moment which breaks the narrative right down into a freeform jazz work-out. Kay deftly equates the freedom and fluidity of jazz not only with literary pyrotechnics, but with the instability of the self. This is a book which examines not who we are but, more crucially, what makes us who we are; Kay is equally as ambiguous on identity as a Miles Davis solo is hard to write down. And this is her point: we invent ourselves as we go along. We improvise. We just play. Which is exactly what Jackie Kay does in this book, in precise, beautiful notes.
As a debut Scottish novel, it has few rivals. As a Scottish novel about race and gender it has absolutely no rivals. It is a book of rare charm and confidence, as universal in its message as it is Scottish in its locale. And her poetry is even better. Now that’s what I call music.
Further reading: The Adoption Papers (1991) explores Kay’s experience of being adopted and raised by a white family; Why Don’t You Stop Talking (2002) is a stunning collection of short stories.
View the complete list of the 100 Best Scottish Books.