It may seem redundant to post a review after taking part in The Readers Summer Book Club discussion of Half-Blood Blues, but I decided to do just that. Mainly to share my *spoiler free* thoughts on Esi Edugyan’s novel with readers who still haven’t read the book and needed a bit of a nudge. If you enjoy history and are looking for a good beach read – one with more depth than your average Summer paperback – then this is probably the novel for you.
Half-Blood Blues initially interested me because of the setting and subject matter. It’s a Jazz novel set in 1940’s Berlin & Paris. Sid, the narrator of Half-Blood Blues was the bass player for the jazz band The Hot-Time Swingers. A combo made up of Americans and Germans, they took Berlin by storm in the 30’s. Sid and his best friend Chip – a drummer who will later rise to stardom as one of the foremost jazz musicians of his generation – have been playing music together since their shared childhood in Baltimore. Their relationship is one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel. While neither man is a saint, their commitment to each other and longtime friendship puts a likeable polish on both characters. (I’d go so far to say that the most sympathetic component of each man is his relationship with the other).
When the book opens Chip, now in his 80’s, is trying to convince Sid to attend a festival celebrating their late friend and band mate Hieronymus ‘Hero’ Falk. Falk was a gifted, Afro-German trumpet player whose reputation (in the vein of Robert Johnson’s) rests on just a few recordings. Both Chip & Sid were interviewed for a documentary on Falk’s life. Both men were a part of the legendary recording of Half-Blood Blues, a disc which only survived because Sid snuck it out of their recording session before it was destroyed. Both men escaped Hitler’s Berlin and Nazi occupied Paris, while Hero did not. Sid develops into a tragic character who may or may not have committed a despicable act and then compounded it with a terrible lie. Chip stays reassuringly consistent throughout, a boy who Sid’s mother once described as having “no light” in his eyes.
Edugyan alternates timelines – jumping forward to Sid & Chip’s modern day pilgrimage to Berlin for the festival and then back to the events of 1940. Sid narrates, by turns brutally honest and suspiciously unreliable. His story is full of red herrings, shocking reveals, suspense, betrayal, nail-digging-ly slow pacing and one of the most beautifully written endings I’ve ever encountered. It’s written in a voice laden with slang and Southern dialectic tics that reminded me of the work of Zora Neale Hurston. On almost all levels Half-Blood Blues is an engaging and satisfying Summer read – falling somewhere between the categories of literary and genre fiction.
It’s not without its flaws. Among the disappointments of this Booker nominated novel is Edugyan’s decisions regarding how far to take the historical component. To my mind not far enough. The Hot-Time Swingers consisted of an Aryan German, a Jewish piano player, the African-Americans Chip and Sid (we’re told Sid could ‘pass’ for white & Chip could not) and Hero – an Afro German. Keep in mind that the jazz scene in Berlin and Paris was HUGE prior to the Nazi crackdown (Check out the album Hot Club de France which collects some of the best recordings of that period). The band’s manager is a member of the German elite, from a family of Fascists, a young man who turned his back on his family’s values and sacrificed everything for the love of jazz. While their stories are here to greater and lesser extent, the sense of time and place wasn’t strong enough for me. I never felt immersed in either city – Berlin or Paris. Other critics have expressed that they’d like to have seen the history of Afro Germans more fully explored. I agree. The reasons I believe readers come to this novel – the history & the music – take a back seat in the book’s middle where Edugyan focuses on a strange and frustratingly juvenile love triangle which develops between Sid, Hero and a woman named Delilah (Louis Armstrong’s protegé and singer).
While I enjoyed Esi Edugyan writing, I’m not as enthusiastic about her plotting. Without revealing spoilers I’ll just say that the two pivotal plot points – the ones on which the entire novel’s motivations are based – are inauthentic. They don’t make sense. It was as if they were inserted as a matter of convenience. As a means for the writer to get to where she wanted to go, rather than carefully placed components of a well thought out narrative. As I’ve already said: I still enjoyed Half-Blood Blues and would recommend it for an entertaining Summer read. But it fell short of the expectations I have for a novel that’s been shortlisted for an award as prestigious as the Man Booker (regardless how quirky the year’s list).
Publisher: Macmillan Audio (2012)
Time: 11 hours, 12 minutes