Book Review: Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Of all the finalists for Canada Reads 2014, I found Half-Blood Blues the easiest to read. Yes, the event that is so central to Half-Blood Blues is awful: “Paris, 1940. A brilliant jazz musician, Hiero, is arrested by the Nazis and never heard from again. He is twenty years old. He is a German citizen. And he is black.” But the historical context is just that – context for the story of the relationships between the musicians and between the musicians and their music.

On the historical front, what sets Half-Blood Blues apart from other books World War II books I’ve read is the unique perspective from which Hiero and his friends/fellow musicians experience the creep of Nazism. They are African-Americans and Afro-Germans. And they are jazz musicians, which classifies them as total degenerates from the Nazi perspective. These two immutable traits unite the musicians in their efforts to stay beyond the grasp of the SS and also their determination to keep making music, which culminates in the pressing of Half-Blood Blues.

As a casual musician for more than 40 years, I especially enjoyed Edugyan’s descriptions of the jam sessions. The phrasing of the (frequently humourous) dialogue reinforced the jazz sensibility:

  • “I frowned. I ain’t got no mind for this damn small talk. Best to shut him up quick. ‘Not London England,’ I said. ‘London Ontario. In Canada.’ The cabbie’s eyes sort of glazed over. Canada kills any conversation quick, I learned long ago. It’s a little trick of mine.” (p 35)
  • “The crowd, man, they ate this cheddar up. Cheering, clapping, banging the damn armrests on their creaking blue seats. Me, I sat frowning to myself. The thing about Caspars, see, he’s a master of talking big and saying nothing. But conviction in a voice ain’t like meat in a stew. It ain’t got no sustenance. I knew that even back as a kid.” (p 45)

The relationships between the musicians are complex and convoluted. Despite the fact that Sid narrates the story, in some chapters Edugyan highlights Hiero’s view of things. I found that the movement back and forth in time worked well to highlight particular aspects of the relationships between Sid, Chip and Hiero. The friendship between Sid and Chip ebbs as their musical success fades with time and age. And then there’s a strong revival of interest in Hiero’s music. Without giving too much away, I confess I prefer endings that are mostly neat and tidy, so I found the last couple of chapters a satisfying end to the novel.

In the context of Canada Reads 2014, the real question is whether Half-Blood Blues has what it takes to change the nation. As much as I enjoyed the book, I’m don’t think it does. So I look forward to hearing the arguments and tactics Donovan Bailey employs to defend Half-Blood Blues in the live debates coming up in March.

I RATE THIS BOOK: 3.0 stars

I use pretty much the same rating system as Goodreads where 1 star = did not like it, 2 stars = it was OK, 3 stars = liked it, 4 stars = really liked it, and 5 stars = it was amazing. Unlike Goodreads, I allow half stars.

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