Book review: Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
Posted on Saturday, November 26th, 2011
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Esi Edugyan is a renowned Canadian author of Ghanaian descent. Her newest novel Half-Blood Blues was published earlier this year and has found itself on the short lists of many celebrated awards from the Man Booker Prize to the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and it walked away with one of Canada’s leading literary prizes: the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
And it’s certainly an interesting premise - Half-Blood Blues looks at life war-torn in Germany and France in the later 1930s and early 1940s from an Afro-German and African-American perspective. Edugyan spent a period of time as writer-in-residence in Stuttgart and it was during this time she found inspiration for Half-Blood Blues, her second novel.
When thinking about the experience of the Second World War and the Nazi regime, it’s very rare that the African experience is considered. Afro-Germans are a race whose presence seems to go unnoticed despite their population in Germany being traced back to at least the 18th century with African immigrants adding to the population. It’s believed there were thousands of Afro-German citizens by the time of the Nazi takeover, including those described as Mischlings or half-breeds such as the key fictional character in this novel, Hieronymus Falk.
Hieronymus Falk, known as ‘Hiero’ or ‘the kid’ throughout the novel is a young and exceptionally gifted jazz trumpeter. Living in Berlin, he’s the member of a popular jazz ensemble known as The Hot Time Swingers who are banned from playing live by the Nazi regime who deem their music “degenerate”. After a number of close run-ins with “the Boots” of the Gestapo, Hiero and two of his band mates Charles C. Jones (Chip) and Sid Griffiths, both from Baltimore, USA, escape to Paris. The dream doesn’t last long as their arrival in Paris coincides directly with the declaration of war and the German invasion, meaning the band members are forced into hiding. Whilst in hiding, they use all their contacts and knowledge to try and get hold of forged visas to get to the States but one day, on Hiero’s demand, both he and Sid venture out onto the invaded streets. Although Sid can pass for white, Hiero has no chance and on visiting a café, he gets picked up by the Gestapo and we soon learn he’s sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where it’s believed he dies.
The narrator is Sid, takes the reader back and forth in time from wartime Paris and Berlin to 1992, where he and Chip Jones are returning to Berlin, as guests of honour in a premier screening of a documentary about Hiero. In his absence he has become somewhat of a jazz cult hero. Both Chip and Sid are in their 80s by 1992 and Sid in particular has a big, secret that has been eating away at him since Hiero’s incarceration and death. Chip also has a secret that he reveals quite early on in the novel, he has received correspondence from Hiero, who sensationally didn’t die in Sachsenhausen and is leaving in Poland. Chip decides that both he and Sid are going to visit him.
This novel promises a whole host of interesting insights into the Anglo-German experience during the Nazi regime and although it is discussed, it doesn’t feel central to the novel’s real story. Edugyan gives us the story of Sid Griffiths and his version of events leading up to Hiero’s arrest and capture and also his feelings in 1992, especially in relation to the changes in his relationship with Chip. The novel is also significantly concerned with jazz and Edugyan writes beautifully, using sentences that are crafted in such a manner that jazz becomes appealing to even those who couldn’t consider themselves fans, for example:
“Hiero thrown out note after shimmering note, like sunshine sliding all over the surface of a lake, and Armstrong was the water, all depth and thought, not one wasted note.”
This is just one example of Edugyan’s beautiful style and precision when talking directly about jazz, Hiero’s talent and the way it spoke to so many people. This example also shows the dialectal style in which Edugyan writes, displaying Sid’s Baltimore roots and also giving him a more genuine and believable voice. Edugyan gives Sid a voice with a warm and deep feeling to it which makes this novel perfect for settling into your comfy reading chair and getting lost.
Half-Blood Blues is written beautifully, Edugyan creates a voice for her narrator that is wholly unique and identifiable and the plot dealing with all issues from racial tension to the love of simple music is both powerful and thought-provoking.
- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Picador (February 28, 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1250012708
- ISBN-13: 978-1250012708