The first chapter begins with Joss Moody’s wife, Millie, being harassed by the media about her husband’s recent death. She is obviously heartbroken, and eager to get away from the limelight. She drives up to their holiday home in Torr, Scotland to grieve by herself. She reminisces on the times she had there with Joss, and as a child where she was fearless, climbing cliffs and running down hills.
She recalls in 1955, when her and Joss first meet at a blood bank. His skin the color of ‘Highland Toffee’ and his tight, black curls instantly captivate her. She questions ‘how could I have known then?’ She retells how they went to Lauder’s bar and then court for three months. As a young woman, Millie is extremely attracted to Joss and eager to have sexual relations with him. After a particularly intense jazz performance, Millie invites Joss home. It is at this point that he undresses, and unwraps bandages to reveal two breasts.
Millie goes for a walk in Torr, by the coast and for breakfast at their usual café. Mrs Dalasso asks after Mr Moody, and Millie has to explain he is dead. She recalls their wedding. Her Mother was originally unsupportive of Joss as black, whilst Millie is white. Eventually, she overcomes her differences and she attends the wedding with Millie’s three brothers. The wedding is a jolly affair, with lots of jazz and dancing. Joss cannot believe his luck that he got to marry Millie and they are very much in love. She feels as if she has lost her sense of gravity since Joss’s death, especially as she reminisces Joss’ successful jazz career that included many albums.
Millie’s memories move on in their marriage to when she begins to crave a child. Joss is extremely upset when Millie announces she wants a child, and blames Joss for not being able to give her one. He suggests she goes and gets pregnant with another man, but she refuses and suggests they adopt. Back in the present, Millie burns a letter from Sophie Stones, asking permission to interview her and her son, Colman.
The chapter switches to the Doctor’s perspective. It shows her beginning to fill out the death certificate, and then stopping when she examines Joss. She sees his breasts, and crosses out ‘Male’ on the certificate. She writes ‘female’ in large red letters. She tells Millie to take the certificate to the registrar.
There is a section dedicated to Colman Moody, explaining the pressures he felt growing up as the son of Joss Moody, the incredibly successful musician. He explains that Joss never hit him, but his parents never kept too many tabs on him. When he visits his friend Sammy’s house, he likes the regulations his Father keeps on Sammy. He has now discovered that Joss was transgender, and is extremely angry about it, exclaiming how they got married, or could adopt him. He recalls his adoption details, how Joss and Millie were lucky to get a him, a baby of colour. He explains how his previous name was William Dunsmore, and wonders what he would have been like if adopted by a different family. He explains how he found out, the funeral director telling Colman, and he reiterates that he is not homosexual, obviously trying to prove his own sexuality. He questions how Joss physically functioned, whether he menstruated when he was younger. He recalls the funeral, and how he felt more comfortable with his dad dressed: ‘Dead, but normal’.
The perspective changes to the registrar, Mohammed Nassar Sharif. He is seen as gentle, and always takes time to write out the death certificate neatly. He writes out the death certificate, ticking ‘female’ when asked about gender. He is curious, and wants to ask Millie how it worked, how she found him attractive. He doesn’t ask anything. Millie receives another letter from Sophie Stones, containing only information that Colman could have provided. Colman has a key to Torr and their London flat, meaning he could reveal all if he wanted to. Millie recalls Joss’ interactions with her Mother, stating that she was a more interesting, fun-loving person when she was with him. The letter asks Millie about Joss’ childhood, and she realises she knows little about it. She knows his name was Josephine, but not about his habits or experiences. Millie recalls the long days when Joss was sick, and his refusal to see the Doctor. One day, she returns and finds he has passed over. She laments that she didn’t force him to get medical care. She looks at photographs, and laments that Joss is not with her.
The perspective changes to the funeral director, Albert Holdings. He has run his funeral business for 25 years, and claims he can tell the personality of the dead. He says that people’s personalities change right up to the moment they die. When Albert undresses Joss, he discovers his breasts. He looks again at Joss’ face and it has transformed to him, as if suddenly more womanly. Colman comes to see the body, and Albert explains he has female body parts. Both Albert and Colman are confused; originally, they believed that gender was decided by female or male anatomy.
A chapter begins called ‘Interview’, which is Sophie Stones interviewing Colman. Colman speaks, recalling how Joss had acted when he first brought a girlfriend, Melanie home. He had acted strange around her, and then offered a trumpet lesson to which Melanie finds Joss attractive and Colman dumps her. Sophie Stones tells him to meet her again the next day, and bring the letter Joss left for him. Colman recalls how Joss bought him his first shaving kit, and is scornful. He assumes it was a grand masculine gesture because Joss got kicks out of not being a man.
The next chapter focuses on Sophie Stones’ perspective. Very quickly we learn that Sophie feels inferior to her sister, and sees this book on Joss as an opportunity to better her. She believes the key to her book is finding out what really made Joss a ‘transvestite’. She reviews her savings, and dreams of all the designer clothes she’ll buy with her profits.
The chapter labelled simply ‘Music’ is an exploration of the experiences Joss goes through as a jazz musician. It talks about how music is in his blood, the reactions he gets from audiences and how playing his trumpet is a spiritual experience that takes him right back to his birth and back to his death. The chapter finishes with an encompassing image of everything that Joss was.
Colman tells the reader about how he lost touch with his friends, walked out on his job as a motorcycle courier, and spends his time watching TV and eating cereal. He fantasises about intercourse with Sophie Stone, exaggerating the size and capabilities of his penis to affirm his own masculinity.
Joss meets with Sophie Stones again, and she sets out a detailed plan on how find out more about Joss, including his birth certificate, and interviews of people that knew him. She tells Colman that she will come with him to Glasgow to find the information, and that she has discovered Joss’ Mother is still alive.
The perspective changes to Big Red McCall, a drummer that worked very closely with Joss as a musician and friend. He is often hungover, so he knows that the early phone call is important. Sophie asks him about Moody, and he refuses to give her any information, advising her to drop it before she upsets Millie. He cries over the loss. Millie opens a third letter from Sophie Stones, realizing she is now being blackmailed. She knows that none of their close friends would betray Joss, but she knows that others will talk for money. The next chapter of ‘Letters’ is from a newspaper that people have written in to, including Sophie Stone requiring information, and comments from fans stating that only the music mattered.
Colman is answering more of Sophie’s questions, and realises he needs to talk, not just for the money. He recalls how Joss had been a harsh father on his teenage self, and how he was an ‘animal’ in his teen years. He was sullen, ungrateful, impolite and stayed out until 4am at the police station once. Colman also recalls when he asked his Father about sex, with intimate questions about affairs, and how often him and Millie had sex. He is fixated on the idea that his Father did not own a penis.
The perspective is now from the Moody’s old cleaner, Maggie. She never recognised Joss as a jazz player, but liked them both very much. When Sophie contacts her, she agrees to speak to her. She tells Sophie that she once saw Joss writing a letter that said ‘Dear Mum’, even though he said she had died a long time ago. When Sophie asks if she still has the keys to their house, Maggie lies and says no. Sophie pays her £500 and Maggie regrets talking to her.
Colman is going to Glasgow with Sophie. He is currently in debt at his Tottenham flat, and dreams of the money from the book meaning he go somewhere they have never heard of Joss Moody. He walks to the station, looking at barbers and homeless men and recalling his parent’s opinions on all he encounters. As Colman gets the train, he recalls how it is difficult to travel as a black man, as people are constantly finding quarrels with what he is doing. He wonders how he’ll approach all the people Joss used to know, and considers telling Sophie he can’t do it. He sees a man that looks like Joss, and follows him through the train, but it is not him.
Millie reminisces fondly about her Sundays with Joss, her favorite day. Firstly they make love, then they read the newspapers together. Colman is younger in this flashback, and regularly ruins their brunch. Joss died on a Sunday, and she remembers everything about that too. She knew that both Joss’ spirit and body were weary of staying alive, so she tells him it’s ok to go now. Once he has died, she wraps the bandages around him and changes him pajamas before phoning the undertaker. Colman is very organised, and rings everyone that needs to be. Back in the present, Millie now understands that she feels the grief that every widow does. Now, she is ready for the reporters.
Colman and Sophie have dinner together in a hotel, and Colman begins to desperately miss his Father. Sophie thinks about Colman sexually, and recalls how he began to get worked up about the book. It is clear Colman is now having doubts about exposing his Father, and asserts that his Mother needs to be left to grieve. He decides he will go visit Joss’ Mother the next day.
The perspective changes to Edith Moore’s. Edith lives in an old age retirement village, but is infinitely annoyed by the warden treating her as a clueless old lady. She tries to retain as much independence as she can. She recalls last time Josephine came to visit her, and brought her a curry to eat, which baffles Edith. The nurses that look after her are shocked that Edith as a white woman married a black man.
Colman goes to visit Edith. She is out shopping at the local store, and she detests supermarkets and the gluttony it encourages. When she returns, Colman says she is a friend of Josephine’s. Edith makes him a ham sandwich. When she enquires about Josephine, Colman is invited to her tell her more.
Sophie Stones has gone designer shopping. As she tries clothes on in the changing rooms, she is prompted to wonder who bought Joss’ clothes for him. She returns back to the hotel and is agitated to see Colman isn’t there. She leaves a message for him and gets ready for dinner. At 8:15pm she wants to go to bed, but waits up for him.
A small chapter is dedicated to Millie recalling how Joss would flatten his breasts with bandages. The process was integral to both their lives, and Millie once slept with bandages under her pillow.
Colman returns to the hotel at 9pm, with photos of Josephine when she was younger. Now he has photos, he can see the feminine resemblance in his Father’s face. He avoids Sophie at the hotel, seemingly deciding not to write the book.
Sophie contacts an old school friend, May Hart. Sophie shows May a picture of Joss as a musician, and she is shocked. She recalls how much love she had for Josephine as a child, and recalls when her and May had practised kissing together. Sophie starts writing the book, and Coleman decides to tell Sophie he does not want to be her ghost writer anymore. The next thing Coleman remembers is waking up next to Sophie at 4am, and going to reception to get another door key. When Sophie wakes up, she thinks over ideas for a book entirely from Colman’s perspective, and decides to propose the idea to him the next day over dinner. She is vulgar in her suspicions of Joss, and thinks she knows why he was transgender. She thinks Joss got a kick out of pretending to be a man when he was really a woman.
Colman takes a bus to Kepper, and opens the letter that Joss left for him. The novel finishes with a chapter from the late Joss. He remembers how his Father was brought to Scotland on a ship, and became the servant to the Duncan-Braes. He acknowledges that we are constantly changing names, and thus identities.