Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (2011) 343 p.
For some reason I feel obligated to open this review with a comment about how the Holocaust claimed far more victims than just Jews – notably blacks – but that would be pointless, because despite being about a bunch of black musicians in Nazi Germany, the book barely touches upon Nazi perseuction. It’s mostly about jazz, friendship and creative talent (or lack thereof), with Nazi Germany – despite being responsible for the book’s pivotal event – never really becoming more than a historical backdrop.
Half-Blood Blues is narrated by Sidney Griffith, an African-American from Baltimore, who came to Europe with his old friend Chip Jones to seek out a career in Germany’s blossoming jazz scene. Here they met Hieronymous Falk, a half-black German born to a white mother and Senegalese soldier, part of the French army occupying the Rhineland. In the novel’s opening scene, which takes place in occupied Paris in 1940, Sid bears witness to the Nazis hauling Hiero away – and never sees him again.
The book jumps back and forth in chronology, beginning with this scene and then returning to Berlin the previous year, and intersparsed with flashbacks to Sid and Chip’s childhood, and scenes set in 1992 when the two friends – now old and grumpy men – return to Europe to find out what became of Hiero. Most of the novel’s more interesting parts are set in 1939 and 1940, particularly the band’s flight from Germany and their short-lived life in Paris.
This was a very difficult book to get into. This is largely due, I think, to Sid’s first-person narration, which Edugyan renders in phoenetic black slang. At the same time she tries to slip in typical literary metaphors and descriptions, which don’t quite gel with the words of a black jazz musician:
Even awake I was sleeping. Dumped in a foreign city, where I ain’t known hardly a soul, the language a constant door in my face. It weighed on me, the loneliness, the jealousy. I took to avoiding Delilah when I could, eating in strange cafes no gate like to turn up in. I blocked the kid out entire. I ain’t certain he even notice.
The streets of Paris turned white as mould under the cold blare of gas lamps.
Edugyan is certainly capable of some choice turns of phrase, however, like when she describes the swastika as a “dancing black spider” or a bad memory as “a burn in my mind, a darkness at the edge of my thoughts.” It’s a testament to her skills that she could make this kind of language work with her chosen narrative gimmick at all, and towards the end of the novel I had grown accustomed to it. But it was disconcerting for at least the entire first half.
The other reason I found it difficult to get into – aside from my own disinterest in the jazz period – was that the premise didn’t seem to have been executed quite right. Maybe that’s the fault of my own expectations, but there’s surprisingly little in Half-Blood Blues about Nazi persecution of the blacks – or, for that matter, anyone. They only seem like a tangible threat after the war begins and the army is advancing on Paris (easily the best stretch of the novel). Half-Blood Blues is more of a character drama with Nazi Germany as a backdrop – and I can’t fault that, I suppose, given that it’s not half-bad. The novel largely revolves around Hiero’s fate and to what extent Sid was responsible for it. It’s a novel about rivalry and jealousy, and how much more horrible they are when the rival you are jealous of is a close friend and loved one. Sid is well-developed enough as a sympathetic character that even when he does something truly monstrous and selfish you can’t help but feel sorry for him.
This is clearly a novel born out of a passion, the author indulging in her desire to explore the niche period of black German jazz musicians. I can see it taking a different track to what many people might expect, but it’s a good book, and a better one than we should have any right to expect from such an odd subject matter.
Not good enough, alas, to make the shortlist. Half-Blood Blues is an ultimately uneven novel, taking far too long to get moving and having a somewhat truncated emotional resolution. Certainly deserving of its place on the longlist, but not to progress any further. (Although, for the record, still a superior book to The Stranger’s Child.)