'He was astonishingly handsome, high cheekbones that gave him a sculpted proud look; his eyes darked than any I'd ever seen. Thick black curly hair, the tightest possible curls, sitting on top of his head, like a bed of springy bracken. Neat nails, beautiful hands. I took him all in as if I had a premonition, as I knew what would happen. His skin was the colour of highland toffee.'Millie is mourning the death of her husband. He was famous jazz trumpeter Joss Moody. He was also a woman.
Joss Moody's true identity had been kept secret for many years, even from their adopted son Colman. It was only with his death that his true identity became known. In the weeks and months after Joss's death, we learn about this remarkable character mainly through the eyes of a number of his friends and family. Much of the story is told by his widow Millie. She recounts the day Moody revealed his true identity to her. She tells too of their long, loving relationship and her terrible loneliness after his death.
'Each time I come into this room the emptiness of it punches me in the stomach. There is something so repetitive about grief. First the stupid hope, then the violence of remembering. The hope, then the carpet from under your feet. If Joss had lived and I had died. If Joss had seen a doctor. If I had made Joss see a doctor. The same things spinning every day and night. Each night I'm afraid to sleep. I know Joss will find me. I know I will wake up and forget and then remember.'Millie's grief is compounded by the scandal surrounding the revelation of her husband's true identity. Reeling from the shock of his parents' deception, Colman agrees to work with a tabloid journalist on a book about his father. The journalist Sophie revels in the sordid details, the deception and the search for a 'reason' for Moody's changed identity. Through Kay's skilful interweaving of the different perspectives, the reader appreciates that gender and identity are more complex and subtle than Sophie can ever understand. In this way, the binding of Moody's breasts, for example, becomes an act of great tenderness, rather than deceit.
Kay writes with great passion too on the transformative power of Moody's music:
'The music is his blood. His cells. But the odd bit is that down at the bottom, the blood doesn't matter after all. None of the particulars count for much. True, they are instrumental getting him down there in the first place, but after that they become incidental. All his self collapses - his idiosyncracies, his personality, his ego, his sexuality, even, finally, his memory. All of it falls away like layers of skin unwrapping. He unwraps himself with his trumpet. Down at the bottom, face to face with the fact that he is nobody. The more he can be nobody the more he can play that horn. Playing the horn is not about being somebody coming from something. It is about being nobody coming from nothing. The horn ruthlessly strips him bare till he ends up with no body, no past, nothing.'The novel was inspired by the true story of Billy Tipton, an American jazz musician and a woman who passed herself off as a man. Like Joss Moody, her true identity was only discovered after her death.
Jackie Kay's novel is as tender and moving a description of grief as you could ever wish to read. She explores nuances of race, gender and identity with great sensitivity. I'd certainly recommend it.