‘Half-Blood Blues’ by Esi Edugyan

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Quentin Mills-Fenn

Reading Esi Edugyan’s second novel Half-Blood Blues I remembered an art exhibit I heard about on the radio some time ago. It was a sampling of art made by artists who died in World War I. Franz Marc was represented, and Wilfred Owen probably was as well.

I thought of the exhibition because Edugyan’s Giller/Writer’s Trust/Booker-short-listed novel tells the story of an irreplaceable beauty that didn’t survive a war.

It’s a novel about a mystery, or several mysteries. It raises questions like where do art and beauty come from? And how far will someone go to create or save something beautiful?

The most immediate mystery is the disappearance of a talented young musician, caught up in the maw of Nazi Germany.

The novel’s narrative toggles between Europe in the early 1990s and Berlin and Paris as the clouds of World War II gather. Louis Armstrong plays a part, and so does Bill Coleman.

The narrator, Sid Griffiths, is a standup bass player who hasn’t played much in a while now that he’s back home in Maryland. Sid, with some other hep cats, was part of a small-group jazz ensemble in Berlin in the 1930s. There was another American, Chip Jones, a drummer. The rest of the band was composed of German musicians. Ernst and Fritz played clarinet and alto sax. Paul, the pianist, was Jewish but looked Aryan with his blond hair.

And Hiero, young, German, black, is the trumpet player. (Edugyan in passing gives a little history lesson explaining the small African-German population in western Germany.) Once the kid blows his horn, it’s clear he’s a genius.

Jazz was quite the thing for a while in Berlin, and the band was living on easy street. But as the Nazis ascended, they set out to crush things jazz, another “Entartete Kunst” or degenerate art form, accusing it of corrupting youth. Once popular musicians were attacked in the street for playing “Jewish music.”A session in occupied Paris results in a single recording that Sid hid away. It’s the only trace of Hiero before he’s arrested.

The story involves a series of shocking betrayals. There are also misunderstandings involving a love affair with Delilah, a black Canadian-American impresario with a great feeling for Hiero’s talent.

Edugyan writes about the sacrifices people make for art, and the complex personalities of artists. (You could think of Half-Blood Blues as Black Swan with Louis Armstrong’s trumpet instead of Natalie Portman’s toe shoes but without the over-heated melodrama.)

She also notes the sad necessity of passing: Sid can pass for white, Paul can pass for Aryan, for a while anyway. Sid is at an advantage compared to the darker-skinned Chip. Paul rides Berlin streetcars and chats up women for as long as he can.

The novel is written in a jazz-tinged argot, all “jacks” and “janes” and “gates.” As Sid, says “We talked like mongrels, see—half German, half-Baltimore bar slang. Just a few scraps of French between us.” It’s the combination of a distinctive voice with a fresh perspective (jazz music) on a much-discussed time and place (Nazi Germany) that makes this book so remarkable.

Late in the novel, Sid talks about his big break:

My damn foot gone to sleep and I stood up, started to shake it out. That old jack reading his paper glanced over in alarm. He turn in his seat, fold one leg over the other, rustle his pages. I been dreading this hour. Louis Armstrong? Hell, I know this was it, this was our moment, our lifetime. Folks think a lifetime is a thing stretched out over years. It ain’t. It can happen quick as a match in a dark room.

That’s an appropriate thought for someone who worked in a genre as rooted in improvisation as jazz. And one of the tragedies Edugyan unearths in this very fine novel is how true it is. This is a book that twists and snaps and jives. Half-Blood Blues is a dark and pure pleasure.

Thomas Allen | 304 pages |  $24.95 | paper | ISBN #978-0887627415

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Quentin Mills-Fenn

Quentin Mills-Fenn is a Winnipeg book critic.