Book Review - Tiny Pieces of Skull

Roz Kaveney had to wait over twenty-five years for her debut novel to be published. One editorial director at the time rejected Kaveney’s manuscript, describing it as ‘cold, heartless and amoral.’ In more recent years mainstream films such as Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Transamerica (2005), the media focus on transgender celebrities such as Kellie Maloney and Caitlyn Jenner, as well as the critical success of trans writers such as Jan Morris and Kaveney herself, have helped to increase the visibility and acceptance of trans people. Loosely based on Kaveney's experiences of living with trans sex workers in Chicago in the late 1970s, Tiny Pieces of Skull deserves to be recognised as a seminal fictional work on transgender identity and transphobia.

Kaveney’s central character, the literary journalist Annabelle Jones, meets Natasha, an American trans socialite in London.  Natasha beguiles Annabelle with stories of her life in Chicago including one about Mexica, a trans who has gained mythic status among Natasha’s American ‘sisters’ for having undergone an operation to change the shape of her skull.

The effect of body image on ego and desire is a recurrent theme – after a breast operation, courtesy of a Harley Street surgeon, Annabelle’s confidence is boosted and she decides to join her cooler, slimmer ‘sister’ in Chicago. Travelling by train, Annabelle blithely trusts her friend will be there to meet her at the station.  However, Natasha’s latest beau, Carlos has moved in and she tells Annabelle that she is no longer welcome: ‘there are lots of good cheap hotels in this city where they don’t mind, you know. And the privacy will be good for your self-discipline – you won’t have your feminist friends telling you it doesn’t matter about being fat.’

Annabelle rents a room in the shady Chesterfield Hotel, where she is befriended by fellow trans Alexandra, notorious for her dance act with a pet python. Socially excluded and regularly hounded by the police, the sisters’ ability to earn a buck is severely limited. Inevitably they turn to prostitution with both hilarious and chilling consequences.  When Natasha eventually falls out with the unscrupulous Carlos, Annabelle is invited to move in with her fair-weather friend.

Kaveney’s characters constantly strive for bodily perfection. Fortunately, Annabelle’s literary background gives her some perspective. Learning the S & M trade and developing an occasional taste for cocaine, she prefers to remain ‘sinisterly uninvolved’ during Natasha’s ‘hog-tying’ sessions. Instead, Annabelle reads Proust, ‘marking her place in the book with a piece of discarded thong’, and concedes that too much coke ‘causes odd glitches in her understanding of, and tolerance for, his longer sentences.’

Endlessly talked about by her fellow sisters, Mexica only makes an appearance at the end of Tiny Pieces of Skull, where we learn that the silicone injected into her backside and hips has drifted down her legs and she can no longer walk unaided. Kaveney’s conversational tone and her vivid descriptions give us the sense that we are eavesdropping on her characters and their colourful, sometimes tragic, lives.

Originally published by the TLS