There have been a few novels featured in these columns by writers who are as well known, and sometimes better known, as poets. These include Ron Butlin, Kevin MacNeil, John Burnside, James Robertson, Alan Spence, and this month, Jackie Kay. Re-reading her debut novel ‘Trumpet’ I found myself asking if there are any conclusions that could be made from reading these writers together. Is there a poetic sensibility that sets them apart from those who concentrate purely on prose? I came to the conclusion that there just may be.
I suppose it could be in the detail. Butlin’s depiction of an alcoholic life in ‘The Sound of My Voice’ is intricate, lyrical (think melting snowmen) and the best I have read, and there are plenty of other examples in these writers’ novels in particular that have them describing mental states and emotions in particularly memorable fashion (McNeil’s final paragraph in ‘The Stornoway Way’ springs to mind). They appear to be men, and women, of feeling. I’m not saying this is a rule, but it’s worth considering. In ‘Trumpet’ Jackie Kay writes about love, specific and universal, in a manner which is as familiar as it is unexpected. It is gorgeous and moving from cover to cover and will have you reassessing your own relationships, past and present.
It begins after the death of jazz trumpet legend Joss Moody who has had a long, happy and successful life married to Millie and with their adopted son Colman. Due to the necessary checks that happen on any dead body it comes to light that Joss was born Josephine. This is something which Millie accepted from the beginning of their relationship, and if at times it made her curious, she never let Joss know. If this was to be the secret that they had to carry to be together then so be it. They were two people in love, which was all that mattered.
‘Trumpet’ is an incredible love story, one which takes in all the joy, pain and inevitable grief that entails. Living in Britain in the mid 20th century as a mixed race couple, Joss’s ‘secret’ would only be another barrier to their happiness, so it is little wonder that they keep it to themselves. The novel asks important questions about identity. Are we brave enough to define who we are or must we wait for others to do so? Joss wills himself into being, with all the effort and care that involves. He becomes the man he always meant to be.
But is it only their secret to keep? Colman, their son who thought he had been brought up in a reasonably conventional household is stung by the revelation, and the novel is as much about his coming to terms with his father’s death as Millie’s. Colman feels betrayed and deceived, as if his parents have been laughing at him all this time, and it is hard not to have some sympathy with him. But as the novel progresses he, like the reader, comes to realise that he is fixating on the wrong things. What was important about Joss was not what he was, or even who he was, but how he was; a loving father and husband and an inspiration to many.
There is plenty of excellent jazz referenced in the book, particularly George and Ira Gershwin and Fats Waller so here’s one of each featuring two of the greatest vocalists of all time.
‘Trumpet’ also puts focus on the public obsession to know other people’s business. Once the Moody family secret is exposed then Millie is chased back to Scotland by the press intrusion. Colman is offered large sums of money to solve a thriller to which the answer is already known, and Joss’s past is uncovered causing little but pain and sorrow for all who are contacted. Colman sees this as a way to get back at his father, and mother, but he soon realises that this is in nobody’s interest except the newspapers. Sound familiar?
How you read a novel is always shaped by when you read it and your own experiences. I first read ‘Trumpet’ when it came out in 1998 and thought it good, but not spectacular. Reading it now its themes of gender, sex and identity are particularly poignant. It is a timely reminder that as people are still being persecuted for their sexuality, at home and abroad, simply for being who they are; that our lives and how we decide to live them are nobody’s business but our own should we choose it to be that way. ‘Trumpet’ is a love story, one which reminds us that, sometimes, that’s all you need.
Next Month’s Novel: The first I knew of ‘Brond’ was as a supernatural/political thriller directed by Michael Caton-Jones on Channel 4 in the ‘80s, which starred a young John Hannah and an imposing Stratford Johns. I recently found a copy of Frederic Lindsay’s source novel in a charity shop and it reminded me just what a good thriller should be.
Set in Glasgow, ‘Brond’ touches on the nature of evil; how seductive and attractive it can be. Although it touches on nationalism, politics and terrorism, they are a backdrop to the central examination of what men (& in this case it is almost always men) are prepared to do, and why.
- Frederic Lindsay Brond (Feb)
- Tom Morton Red Guitars in Heaven (Mar)
- George Friel Mr Alfred, MA (Apr)
- Archie Hind Dear Green Place (May)
- Laura Marney No Wonder I Take A Drink (Jun)