Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan [A Review]

Friendship and betrayal lie at the heart of Esi Edugyan’s acclaimed novel following Jazz musicians in wartime Berlin and Paris. But it is the intrigue of the story that will delight readers.

Half Blood Blues

This novel has one hell of a hook

Hieronymous ‘Hiero’ Falk plays trumpet in a jazz band in occupied Paris. Though a German citizen, he is black, without papers and one night he is arrested by the Gestapo and never seen again.

In the early 60’s, a set of recordings dating from the war are discovered hidden in the wall of a house in Vichy. The house’s war-time occupant was a Nazi and apparently a secret Jazz enthusiast. The recordings become a hit, with Hiero posthumously declared a genius.

As for Hiero, no one knows what became of him. The official story is that he was transferred to a labour camp and died not long after the war ended. Naturally this only fuels speculation and theories. Hiero is afforded the legendary status of any dead-before-their-time genius.

With the right kind of death, a man can live forever

It is now the early 90’s. The wall has come down and a new, unified Germany is ready to celebrate its more diverse past. A documentary has been made on the pre-war German Jazz scene with particular emphasis on Hiero.

Attending the premiere are two of Hiero’s former band mates – Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones. Chip, the drummer in the band, benefited most from being rediscovered with Hiero in the 60’s and spent most of the years since touring and fighting a heroin habit. Sid on the other hand, bass player and the novel’s narrator, was not considered particularly talented and has largely lived a quiet life since the war.

But Chip has news for Sid. On the eve of their departure for Berlin he tells Sid that he has received a mysterious letter. Hiero, he believes, is alive and living in Poland!

All this takes place within the first 40 pages. Now, I do not normally think in terms of an author having ‘a contract’ with the reader as some do, but at this stage I was thinking, no matter what happens, I’m seeing this through to the end.

But before Sid and Chip can make their trip to Poland they attend the premier. There Sid watches as Chip, on screen, says in an interview, that he blames Sid for Hiero’s arrest by the Gestapo, that he could have prevented it and that he did it over a woman.

Author Esi Edugyan now has us well and truly caught in her web

We are compelled to continue and try and connect these dots; Sid, Hiero, this woman, the arrest and the letter. She takes us back to Berlin, around the beginning of the war, and immerses us in the world Sid, Chip and Hiero inhabit. Their outfit includes black and mixed-race Americans from the South, a German Jew passing as Aryan, a connected son of an aristocratic German, not to mention black German Hiero. Though Germany is increasingly dangerous for their kind they feel little compulsion to leave.

And then they meet Delilah. Claiming to work with Louis Armstrong himself, convinced of the genius of Hiero’s trumpet playing and determined to get them to record, her arrival changes all of their lives.  But I won’t tell you anymore.

Half Blood Blues is a novel of friendship and betrayal. Mostly it is a story of what we will do to try and ensure the love of another or the preservation of our legacy. What will insecurity and the fear of loss compel us to do?

It is a good novel from a fairly new writer and has been well received. Its best attribute is its ability to keep the reader emotionally involved through the tension of the danger of living in Berlin and Paris in this period, their precarious escape from Germany and the mystery at the heart of the story. The characters are not particularly complex, but I liked the fact that they are not monotone and clearly flawed. Chip, for example, is easy-going but his joking can be snide which prevents him from being completely likeable.

The novel does have a few minor weaknesses that prevent it from being great

Clearly, the intrigue the author creates early in the story is key to the reader’s enjoyment. There is one aside early in the novel that was clearly intended to keep us guessing and is a little transparent.

The vernacular of our narrator Sid, who speaks in the broken English of an African-American of the South in the early 20th Century, can be off-putting for some. My problem with it was that it was a little inconsistent. It is the problem for every author who wants to give their narrator a distinctive voice. Then, when they need the narration to be more poetic and to grasp the beauty or tragedy of a moment the story, it sounds like someone else speaking. Sid is no poet, but then would the book be as good if the author did not ask him to be one sometimes?

It could be said that this novel ignores the larger issues faced by black and mixed-race individuals in Nazi Germany. Equally, it could be said that the novel has not been burdened with feeling like it is full of research. There was one anecdote in the middle of the novel that seemed out of place – like the author found something interesting in her research and decided to include it without enough connection to the story.

Overall though this is a fine novel, worthy of its Booker Prize shortlisting and sure to be enjoyed by those who give it a look.

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4 thoughts on “Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan [A Review]

  1. Pingback: The Readability Prize | Rants & Raves

  2. Pingback: A Review of the 2011 Booker Prize: The Readability Prize | We Need to Talk About Books

    • ‘Mixed’ is a good way of putting how I felt about it too. It did get shortlisted for both the Booker and the Orange Prize, so some people certainly liked it a lot! Thanks for your comment

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