Finding the Music: Book Review of Jackie Kay’s “Trumpet” (1998)

Samantha Travis 

Staff Writer

Jackie Kay’s “Trumpet.” A novel diving into themes of gender identity, during a time when issues like this were never discussed or even considered to exist. Yet, they still did, and Kay discusses all of it. Inspired by the life of transgendered jazz musician, Billy Tipton, “Trumpet” follows the life of black Scottish jazz musician, Joss Moody, who lives his life as a man, going through his entire life keeping the secret that he is transgender. The story follows Moody’s friends and loved ones, such as his wife, Millie, and his adopted son, Colman, trying to not just cope with his death, but the backlash of paparazzi after Moody’s secret is revealed to the world. “Trumpet,” does not just cover issues of gender, but also racism and death, which the characters of the novel react to in many different ways. 

       When the story begins, readers are introduced to Millie, Joss’s wife. She recalls the first time she met Joss, shocked at his secret, but still putting her love for him over the opinions of others, the two of them keeping his secret until his death. Soon, readers watch as Millie not only struggles to cope with her husband’s death, but also the backlash she receives from the media. She struggles to find a way to tell Joss’s story truthfully, struggling to find the courage to show the world the real person he had once been. 

       Readers also get the perspective of Millie and Joss’s adopted son, Colman. They watch him struggle to find his place in the world, as a black man and adopted, feeling his identity is, in a way, blurred. He is soon left to deal with the shock of discovering the truth about his father, as well as resentment for Joss and Millie, since he feels he has been lied to his whole life. He pairs up with journalist, Sophie Stones, who plans to write a novel about Joss Moody, exposing him as a “freak” or “pervert,” but readers watch Colman go back and forth in his mind, struggling to remember the father who raised him and the “freak” the media is portraying him to be. 

       Readers also get the perspective of minor characters as well; Joss’s bandmates, the funeral director, the undertaker, Joss’s mother, even the maid who worked for the Moody family. They may seem like random characters, but they play a very important role, the same as Millie and Colman. Kay gives the perspective of everyday people, because it asks the question of gender norms and sexuality. What does it mean to be a man or a woman? How can a woman go through her whole life making people believe she was a man? How could nobody ever suspect anything before? 

Kay’s novel brings up many brilliant issues of gender and trans struggles many years before it’s time. It is a novel many people should read, whether they are trans or not. “Trumpet,” is a beautiful yet gut-wrenching story, constantly asking the questions of what does it mean to be alive. 


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