Book Review: 2011 Short Listed: Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues

Half_Blood_BluesRating: 5
Half Blood Blues
A Novel by Esi Edugyan
2011 (2012 US) / 304 Pages

The Setup: Paris, 1940.  A brilliant jazz musician, Hiero, is arrested by the Nazis and never heard from again.  He is twenty years old.  He is a German citizen.  And he is black.

Fifty years later, his friend and fellow musician, Sid, must relive that unforgettable time, revealing the friendships, love affairs and treacheries that sealed Hiero’s fate.  From the smoky bars of pre-war Berlin to the salons of  Paris – where the legendary Louis Armstrong makes an appearance – Sid, with his distinctive and rhythmic German-American slang, leads the reader through a fascinating world alive with passion, music and the spirit of resistance.

Half-Blood Blues, the second novel by an exceptionally talented young writer, is an entrancing, electric story about jazz, race, love and loyalty, and the sacrifices we ask of ourselves, and demand of others, in the name of art. (from the hardcover edition)

This review originally appeared on Opinionless on 10/10/2011

It’s amazing how certain pieces of fiction can resonate with a reader based on their own life experiences or those of the people closest to them. There were multiple moments during my reading of Esi Edugyan’s novel Half Blood Blues where I smiled, paused, and thought, “I really need to tell my grandfather about this book. He’s really going to love it,” only to then remember that he passed on a little over a year ago.

Whatever sadness I felt as a result of this recollection though, was overpowered by a sense of closeness, as if this piece of historical fiction was somehow a gateway toward bridging generational gaps and better understanding and appreciating my grandfather’s worldviews and beliefs. This is what an exceptional piece of fiction does. It breaks down the barriers that divide us such as race, religion, age, and sex, and speaks to directly to us in a way that no other medium can, regardless of the subject, setting, or characters involved.

I fully admit that I was less than enthralled with the idea of reading Half Blood Blues after skimming its description. I’d even go so far to say that based on the blurb alone, I probably would have never picked up the novel if not for its Man Booker short list nomination. That would have been a shame, because not only is it a wonderfully written story about jazz, friendship and betrayal, there’s also a host of other equally as important themes begging for the reader’s attention.

The setup is simple, yet unique. A group of struggling jazz musicians, including a black teenage horn blowing prodigy of German descent named Heironymous Falk, attempt to survive life in Berlin during the rise to power of the Nazi regime and the outbreak of World War II. Narrated entirely by bass player Sidney Griffiths the novel jumps back and forth between the war and the present day 1990s. It’s in this present day that Sidney finds himself preparing to attend a festival being held in honor of the long ago presumed deceased Falk while he struggles with recalling the hardships that he and his friends endured in order to set the record straight about what really happened during the war.

In fact, one of the key themes the novel presents is that of owning one’s life and speaking truthfully in your own words, because interestingly enough, if you don’t, others might seize the opportunity to do it for you based on their own perceptions and interpretations of events and what they eventually conclude to be the truth might wildly miss the mark.

Over the years volumes have been written about anti-Semitism, but I don’t think I’ve once stopped to question what life was like for many of the other ethnic groups living in and around Germany during this time period, nor did I realize that the Nazi’s deemed jazz music to be offensive to their ideology because it was most often performed by blacks and Jews. Because the fictional Heironymous Falk was black and a jazz musician living in Nazi Germany he essentially became stateless. He couldn’t safely stay in Germany, but he couldn’t simply acquire the paperwork required to cross the border into another country either. What did eventually become of him is shrouded in mystery for years.

With great pacing, interesting characters, and suspense-filled situations, Edugyan delivers a novel that grabs the reader’s attention from the very first page and doesn’t let go until its conclusion. Along the way, friendships are explored, loves are won and lost, people are betrayed, and eventually one man must come face to face with his past and accept the truth and consequences of his actions.

For whatever reasons, Half Blood Blues won’t officially find its way to publication in the United States until the very last day of February 2012, which makes it one of the more difficult (and expensive) Booker nominated titles to track down, but it’s well worth the effort and cost involved.

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