Jazz. Here in Germany it become 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 blond kids into corruption and sex. It wasn’t a music, it wasn’t a fad. It was a plague sent out by the dread black hordes, engineered by the Jews. 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. But the Jews, brother, now they cooked up this jungle music on purpose. All part of their master plan to weaken Aryan youth, corrupt its janes, dilute its bloodlines. – from Half-Blood Blues -
Hieronymus Falk, Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones are part of a jazz group living in Germany during 1939. It is a dangerous time for blacks in a country where Hitler’s reach is great. They are banned from playing their music, and then an altercation occurs which puts their lives in danger. The group flees to Paris and moves in with the beautiful and sultry American singer, Delilah. But war is coming to France as well, and before long jealousy and betrayal coupled with the uncertainty of war leave the group at odds. One morning when Hiero and Sid go out for milk, Hiero is arrested while Sid looks on, and the young and talented jazz musician disappears. Years later, in 1992, Sid and Chip return to Berlin to celebrate the life of Hiero whose early music has been resurrected. Old rivalries and forgotten history resurface as Sid must come to terms with what really happened in Paris so many years ago.
Esi Edugyan’s Booker nominated novel, Half-Blood Blues, is historical fiction which centers around the world of jazz during the years of World War II. Narrated by Sid in a rich dialect of American slang, it moves back and forth from 1939 to 1992, gradually uncovering the complex and conflicting relationships of the characters. Sid and Chip have an uneasy yet lasting friendship which is marred by the day Hiero disappeared. The dialogue between the men is one of mockery and jesting, and is filled with slang which was, at first, a bit distracting for me. The narrative is a reconstruction of a period in time, filled with musical references which evoke a sense of place.
Delilah is the spark which ignites the tension in the novel – a beautiful woman with a seductive personality who has the power to divide loyalties. Edugyan is quite skilled at character development, giving readers a deep look into the lives of her conflicted characters through the unreliable narration of Sid.
Edugyan tackles the themes of racism, antisemitism, betrayal, and love against the backdrop of the Jazz era in Germany. She is adept at conveying a sense of place through gorgeous descriptive phrasing. As Sid and Chip travel to Poland in 1992 in search of Hiero, they climb aboard a bus “yellow as a toilet inside, the seats foamless and reeking of old piss.”
No sooner had we sat down than the driver got out, banged shut all the baggage doors, and come back on board glowering. He yelled some words in Polish, but no one seemed to pay no attention. Then he sat down, pulled out some levers, started the old engine with a roar, snapped his dusty window open. The brakes groaned, the axles hissing under us like asps. And then there was a sound like an enormous pressure releasing, and that huge rusted bus started shuddering on its big tires, rolling slowly out into the dead road. – from Half-Blood Blues -Despite its strengths, the novel is not without its faults. I found the pacing very slow in spots – surprisingly during the part of the book set in 1939 which I thought would have been the most intriguing. Instead, I found myself most enjoying the narrative with Sid and Chip as old men. Although there is supposed to be some mystery to what exactly happened in Paris and with Hiero, I found the tension in the plot to be a bit underwhelming. The use of dialect in the novel is both a strength and a weakness. Early on, I struggled to stay in the story, battling the unfamiliar jargon and slang. Later, I recognized this vernacular as an effective device to understand the characters better. Still, I think the use of language in the book may be difficult for some readers.
There is no doubt that Edugyan can write. Half-Blood Blues is a laudable and quite literary effort that is really about relationships and human flaws. Edugyan uses a volatile time in history as a backdrop to her characters which will appeal to readers of historical fiction who also appreciate literary fiction.
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