Friday, 6 April 2012
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
On with the 2012 Orange Prize long-list! Half Blood Blues had been on my radar for a while as it was also short-listed for the 2011 Booker prize and won the 2011 Giller prize, so I was glad to have the push to finally read it. It's about the disappearance of talented jazz musician Hieronymus Falk during the fall of Paris in 1940. Fifty years later his bandmate and friend Sid Griffiths is watching a documentary about the legendary record they made together and becomes determined to find out what really happened to Falk.
Half Blood Blues was a surprising book. There are countless books out there about World War II, but I've never read one quite like this, from the perspective of a black American jazz player. Edugyan's writing completely blew me away as everything in the novel was so vibrant and had an incredible sense of time and place. She could go from the grimy glamour of the German pre-war jazz clubs to the tension of being hunted by Nazi soldiers within a few pages and make all of it believable. The writing felt fresh and alive;
"Jazz. Here in Germany it became something worse than a virus. We was all of us damn fleas, us Negroes and Jews and low-life hoodlums, set on playing that vulgar racket, seducing sweet blonde kids into corruption and sex. Us Negroes, see, we was only half to blame - we just can't help it. Savages just got a natural feel for filthy rhythms, no self-control to speak of." p85
I was also impressed with how well Edugyan wrote from the male perspective of Sid. She used the vernacular of 1930s Baltimore and made Sid believable as a kid from the wrong side of the tracks. I liked the language quirks and deliberate misuse of grammar. From a structural point of view, it also worked that the story wasn't told chronologically, rather jumping back and forth from the war to the 1990s - it kept the tension going.
If I had to criticise this book, I would say that whilst the three main characters, Sid, Chip and Hiero, were very well drawn and distinct, the secondary characters were less so. When one of the other band members is captured by the Nazis, it didn't have the impact it could have because I didn't feel connected to him. Similarly, I never quite understood why everyone loved Delilah so much because Edugyan didn't show me enough of her character.
But this is a minor complaint as the main characters were so dynamic. Out of all the long-listed books I've read so far, this is my favourite. I would be very surprised indeed if it didn't get short-listed.
Source: Library (reserved)
First Published: 2011
Score: 4.5 out of 5