Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

>> Saturday, May 19, 2012

TITLE: Half-Blood Blues
AUTHOR: Esi Edugyan

PAGES: 336

SETTING: 1930s/40s Germany and France, 1990s US, Germany and Poland
TYPE: Fiction

Berlin, 1939. The Hot Time Swingers, a popular jazz band, has been forbidden to play by the Nazis. Their young trumpet-player Hieronymus Falk, declared a musical genius by none other than Louis Armstrong, is arrested in a Paris café. He is never heard from again. He was twenty years old, a German citizen. And he was black.

Berlin, 1992. Falk is a jazz legend. Hot Time Swingers band members Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones, both African Americans from Baltimore, have appeared in a documentary about Falk. When they are invited to attend the film’s premier, Sid’s role in Falk’s fate will be questioned and the two old musicians set off on a surprising and strange journey.

From the smoky bars of pre-war Berlin to the salons of Paris, Sid leads the reader through a fascinating, little-known world as he describes the friendships, love affairs and treacheries that led to Falk’s incarceration in Sachsenhausen. Half-Blood Blues is a story about music and race, love and loyalty, and the sacrifices we ask of ourselves, and demand of others, in the name of art.
No summary from me, the one above is just right, so straight to what I thought of it. Basically, I had very mixed feelings. There were things I really liked about it, and I think it's objectively a very good book, but some things didn't quite work for me.

I think what I liked best about it was how completely fresh it felt. This is really something I've never read before. The jazz scene in Germany before World War II, Hiero's history, as a mixed race boy growing up there, the feel of Paris waiting, waiting as the Germans approach... all completely new to me, and they all really came alive here.

I also loved the language when Sid talks about music, especially when he describes Hiero's trumpet playing. I really don't know anything about jazz, but his descriptions made me want to hear how that would sound.

The actual story, however, was just not my thing. Well, the pre-War sections, mostly, since I quite liked the ones set in the 90s, with Sid and Chip as old men trying to find out and come to terms with what happened all those years ago. In the sections set in the past, there was a bit of a smug, "we're so cool" vibe, which I found pretty off-putting. I can't stand the glorification of the whole sex and drugs and rock and roll thing, and the fact that here it was more sex and alcohol and jazz didn't make it any better.

I wasn't particularly interested in Sid and Chip, either, and didn't want to spend time with them in those sections. Chip was quite unpleasant in a boring sort of way. And as for Sid, well, I recognised what Edugyan was trying to do, giving him all these vulnerabilities and insecurities, and making him act in ways that he knew was wrong, as a result. But it never quite gelled for me. I only got through these sections (and they're the longest ones) by making a rule for myself that I had to read this book on the train on my commute.

Hiero and Delilah were the only characters that really interested me, but I didn't feel Edugyan did them justice. With Delilah, it was mostly a case of me disliking Sid and not getting what she saw in him. She didn't feel real. With Hiero, it was just the one-dimensional portrayal. Sid is increasingly jealous and ill-disposed towards him, and yet even through his eyes, Hiero comes across as a complete angel. Sweet, innocent, good... a bit unreal, too, frankly. That was a shame, I would have liked to get to know him better.

I also thought the ending was a disappointment. My main reaction was "is that it?". We never really get much of a resolution, so there's no payoff here at all. The book just drifts off and finishes.

MY GRADE: A B-, just because the setting is so fascinating, that it's probably worth a read just for that.


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