In which I review a book that I read: Tiny Pieces of Skull

Content note: This post touches on transmisogyny, rape and sex work, and contains spoilers for Tiny Pieces of Skull.

Roz Kaveney’s at-least-partially-autobiographical novel, Tiny Pieces Of Skull: Or, A Lesson In Manners, was a long time coming. It was mostly written close to the time it was set, in the late 70s, but did not see the light of day until now. Its publication in the present day, perhaps, marks a shift in attitudes creating the social conditions where such a book actually can be published.

Tiny Pieces Of Skull follows Annabelle, a recently-transitioned trans woman, through a pretty eventful period of her life in London and Chicago, including surgery, sex work, rape, drugs and crimes. With themes like this, one would expect a moralistic lecture, or at the very least a misery memoir, yet the book is anything but.

At its heart, Tiny Pieces Of Skull is a book about women and their complex inner lives. It is a story of learning and growth, and a tale of community, the little spaces carved out by the characters in a world that is against them. Terrible things happen to the characters, and it is made all the more shocking by how completely normal this is treated. Annabelle quickly understands the daily battle of survival, and it swiftly becomes almost like background noise. The title quite adequately portrays the content of the novel: Tiny Pieces Of Skull is a starkly violent phrase reflecting the 70s Chicago underground, while A Lesson In Manners describes Annabelle’s coping strategy: using her wits and charm.

Each event in the novel could form fifty thousand words in and of itself, and yet TPoS tears through everything at an alarming pace. We are barely given time to react to and process one thing, when something else happens. Blink, and you might miss something deeply important. Like the protagonist, we must adapt quickly and never get too comfortable.

While TPoS may be mostly thirty years old, I was struck by how much is still relevant to discussions happening today. Its unflinching yet non-judgmental attitudes towards being trans and being a sex worker is a masterclass in writing trans and sex worker characters: their circumstances are important, and yet it is not these things that define them–they are rounded people outside of this. While the word “trans” does not even feature in the novel, it is abundantly apparent that this shapes the characters’ experiences. Instead, the word “sister” is used, because that’s what TPoS is about: sisterhood.

Like with blood sisters, there are bonds between the women, even when they absolutely detest each other. They gossip, they bitch, they cut up faces and yet they are united against external threats: cis men–rapists and the police. They come through for one another in the face of fundamentalist Christians and men who prey on vulnerable women.

While many of the specifics in TPoS have changed over time: the spectre of the AIDS epidemic had yet to rear its head at the time it is set, so it is therefore not a threat to the characters, for example, it is still highly relevant to all women. The villains–cis men with power–remain the same to women of all circumstances even today, yet we must acknowledge that still trans women and sex workers are more at risk from this brutality.

It’s the sort of short novel you can tear through in an afternoon, but it will stay with you. Personally, I’m planning on reading it again pretty damn soon.


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