Book Review: Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

It’s like that, I guess, when the past come to collect what you owe.

Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan

I have read my fair share of Second World War novels – usually the heroes are American or British, sometimes they’re soldiers or nurses, and other times they’re on the homefront, and almost always they’re white. So when I picked up Half Blood Blues I knew I was in for something different, I just hadn’t realized how different.

The novel is told by the point of view of Sid Griffiths – a former jazz musician, with a bass as his instrument – who lived through the rise of the Nazis in Germany and then the occupation of Paris before coming back to Baltimore and living his life. The story is one of facing your past and moving forward (or holding yourself back). It’s a beautiful, sad story. And a poignant one at that. Things I never considered, like the status of musicians, of black-skinned artists in the Third Reich, or even of German born, Half black citizens – because my high school history classes never covered it, and my university history classes only mentioned grand statistics.

Edugyan is a master storyteller – the story weaves itself from the 30s and 40s to the 1990s effortlessly, the narrative jumping from Sid’s past to his octogarian self, the same wit and the same tone, though older, wiser. It’s amazing what can be accomplished through language. Edugyan immerses herself in the narrative, clothes herself in the vernacular – it’s a beautiful thing and it creates the world as it was, something you can almost touch, just because the characters are using the right words, the correct expressions and plattitudes.

It ain’t fair. Gifts is divided so damn unevenly. Like God just left his damn sack of talents in a ditch somewhere and said, “Go help yourselves, ladies and gents.Them’s that get there first can help themselves to the biggest ones. In every other walk of life, a jack can work to get what he want. but ain’t no amount of toil going get you a lick more talent than you born with. Geniuses ain’t made, brother, they just is. and I just was not.

Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan

The way the vernacular comes through – “brother” “jack” “janes”  – the way the banter between Sid and his oldest friend Chip just flows seamlessly from phrase to phrase, even after sixty odd years – it’s a wonderful read. It flows over you, pulling you into the story that can be hard to read at times.

Because this ain’t no fairy tale.

Sid is a musician – a jazz musician, for heaven’s sake – under a regime that is growing in restrictions. He is black, and so are a lot of his friends, though he has friends among Jews, Germans and other Europeans. The police – “boots” – patrol the streets after dark, beating anyone out after curfew, particularly if they have the telling marks of a non-Aryan. The music scene is getting stressed – no one willing to stick their necks out to enjoy the music, instead hiding away at clubs that are quickly running out of power and booze. There is a desperation to the narrative – a hurry up and wait – where all the characters know what’s coming, in increments they start piecing together that their time together is short, but no one can figure what to do about it.

It’s a secret history that no one really knows, but everyone can recall – the rush to get out, first of Germany and then, as the Nazi troops fall on Paris, out through the South of France to Portugal and beyond. It’s a story everyone’s heard, a scene everyone’s seen at least once – in some black and white movie, in some made for school special.

But it’s different somehow – probably because you get to see all the people you didn’t get to see before and all the politics in that. There’s a claustrophobia in it – like no matter which way you turn on the street, you end up shut in. And the way Edugyan unravels it all to get to the conclusion is mastery at work.

Because the real craftiness of the novel lies in the older Sid, his regrets and his fears, as he goes back to Germany and then Poland to amend for his actions during the Paris occupation. Sid is such a real character – he is jealous and hopeful, horny and patient, run through and yet still aspirational. You sort of hate him for what he does, but you understand too – understand the ambition and the hope for something better, for a chance to make it right, for a chance to make it big. He’s a wonderfully human character that you can’t help but sympathize with by the time you turn the last page.

It’s a heart breaking novel that will leave tears in your eyes and leave you better educated than you were before – about race, culture, citizenship, and jazz. Especially jazz. Edugyan’s appreciation for jazz seems to pluck out all my sentiments from my head and put them into words.

I leave you with this:

There’s all sorts of ways to live, Chip. Some of them you give a lot. Some of them you take a lot. Art, jazz, it was a kind of taking. You take from the audience, you take from yourself.

Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan

It’s a thorough “coming home” story that spans decades and brings you right back to where it started. I highly recommend it!



Next to Review: Girl of Nightmares by Kendare Blake


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