Review: Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

>>Published: September 2011

>>Finally got around to it: October 2011

All of a sudden Chip give me a look of surprise from his dark corner.

Kid wasn’t even hardly listening, it seemed. Handling his horn with a unexpected looseness, with a almost slack hand, he coaxed a strange little groan from his brass. Like there was this trapped panic, the barely held-in chaos, and Hiero hisself was the lid.

I pulled back soon as he come in, fearing we was going to overpower him in that narrow closet. But he just soften it down with me, blurr it up. Then he blast out one pure, brilliant note, and I thought, my god.

***

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust for Fiction, and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, Esi Edugyan’s second novel carries a hell of a lot of weight to its name. Fortunately, Half-Blood Blues more than lives up to its lofty expectations.

Splitting its narrative between Berlin and Paris in 1939 and 1940, and Berlin and Poland in 1992, Half-Blood Blues tells the tale of “the kid”—legendary trumpet player Hieronymus Falk, “one of the pioneers: a German Louis Armstrong, if you will.” Taken away by the Boots—Nazi enforcers—in 1940 and long thought dead, recovered recordings of Falk take on a near-mythical status, and his supposed death is considered one of the great tragedies to face jazz in the first half of the twentieth century.

Edugyan’s narrative follows bassist Sidney “Sid” Griffiths in both the past and the present, recounting the events that led to their evacuation of Berlin for Paris, meeting Louis Armstrong, and the final splitting of their band. Inspired by a letter his former friend and drummer Chip Jones receives, written in Hiero’s hand, the two set off to Poland to reunite with the legend they thought long gone. For Sid, the journey is not just a means to see an old friend, alive and well after decades assumed dead, but to confront his own guilt over events in 1939 and 1940, and how his actions changed the course of Hiero’s future.

Esi Edugyan digs deep into the lives and minds of a Black, Jewish, and mixed-race band trapped on the brink of war with a nation that wants nothing to do with the lot of them, or the “deviant” lifestyle their music represents. Not just dialogue, but everything—from the most basic descriptors, to long-winded inner monologues—embraces its lyrical affectations, keeping in sync with the presence of musical greatness, with the roll-with-it jazz lifestyle and the personalities that attracts, and with the overshadowing mood of the era as Germany lumbers toward a declaration of all-out war.

Dividing the book in six parts—three in the past and three in the present—there are moments in Half-Blood Blues that feel weighted too much in one direction; as compelling as it is to follow Sid, Chip, Hiero, and the rest of the band from Germany to France, hiding from the Nazis at every opportunity, Sid and Chip’s journey in the present, to reunite with Hiero and reveal the truths of their shared past, feels slightly less developed. In some respects, I don’t mind this decision, as much of Sid’s growth in the book’s final pages comes as much from what’s left unsaid as what’s revealed (given tremendous gravity and understanding through the obviously redemptive/uniting use of music in the final paragraphs). Still, with a book this difficult to put down, it’s hard not to be left wanting a little more to taste—a little more of what it was to hear Hiero for that first time, to have a changing, almost synaesthetic experience through another’s music, and to confront the loss of talent that imprisonment and the decades that followed were responsible for.

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