Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan won the Giller Prize this year so this marks a rare occasion where I write a review for a current award-winning novel. Half-Blood Blues is the story of a black jazz ensemble in Berlin at the outbreak of the Second World War, how they escape to Paris and then reunite fifty years later. Reviews of the book on the novel’s back cover informed me that the story would be told in a narrative that “moves us with its intrinsic power, grace and soulful jazz cadences.”. Another review stated “the real allure of the novel is the mongrel and enduring beauty of its language. Like a gifted jazz performer, Esi Edugyan knows how to make new phrasings and cadences hit big upon the heart.”. When I read this about the novel’s language I was hesitant to even start the book. I remembered not enjoying Toni Morrison’s Jazz, which plays with a musicality in its narrative. Although like with Morrison I had heard and read great reviews about Edugyan, I did not want to risk a sluggish plod through Half-Blood Blues, because once I start a book I must finish it, no matter how much I dislike it.
I did not dislike Half-Blood Blues. Far from it. The novel begins in Paris in 1940 and jumps around in chapters to pre-WWII Berlin and then to the band’s reunion which takes place in 1992 Berlin and in Poland. The language of the band during the time of the war is musical, full of jazzy slang and insider lingo which often doesn’t identify its meanings until several pages later. I normally don’t like to be hanging like this in fiction. All too often if I don’t know what a writer is talking about, I think that I have missed something and tend to flip back and reread passages in vain. Edugyan always explained her slangy and insider terms through context soon after introducing them.
I liked Edugyan’s sense of description. She had me smiling on numerous occasions when I read her metaphors and similes. When band member Chip reminisces with bandmate Sid about their sneaky ruses to get candy when they were children from Chip’s aunt, who was afflicted with dementia, before she realized what he was up to, Edugyan writes:
“Tante Cecile reached into her cedar box and pulled out four more candies. Chip snatched these up faster than pulling money out of a fire.”
While in Berlin just before the outbreak of WWII, Sid is transfixed by the seductive Delilah, into whose apartment the band finds refuge after a fight with the Nazi SS (known as “boots” in their lingo):
“I stopped. The oak flooring creaked under my heels. I felt a hot radiance in my nerves, my whole body filling with a confused, battered feeling, like a moth caught in a lantern.”
The image of a moth battering itself to death against a burning lightbulb was a perfect image to describe Sid’s growing passion for Delilah. Edugyan captures passion with the brush of a master painter when she tells how Sid’s life is altered forever when, at age thirteen, he steps inside a jazz club in Baltimore for the first time:
“I was in love. Pure and simple. This place, with its stink of sweat and medicine and perfume; these folks, all gussied up never mind the weather–this, this was life to me. Forget Sunday school and girls in white frocks. Forget stealing from corner stores. This was it, these dames swaying their hips in shimmering dresses, these chaps drinking gutbucket hooch. The gorgeous speakeasy slang. I’d found what my life was meant for.”
Sid and Chip form a jazz band and during the outbreak of WWII they find an old studio where they attempt to record a composition entitled “Half-Blood Blues”. Take after take yet the recording never meets the approval of their child prodigee trumpet player Hiero. I do not want to spoil the wartime story for future readers, however I will say that the band flees from Berlin to Paris and then as the Nazis invade France the band dissolves. The novel alternates its lengthy chapters between the war story and the band’s reunion fifty years later. During the reunion part of the novel which takes place in the 1990’s, the language alternates as well, for no longer does Edugyan imbue her jazz band with the musical flow of syncopated rhythm. The octogenarians Sid and Chip speak in a more standard form of English.
For fear that the band will be broken up forever as the Nazis march into Paris, Sid commits an act that, unbeknownst to him at the time, would have traumatic repercussions for Hiero. Sid later learns the consequences of his actions and he carries the guilt for half a century, never knowing if Hiero is dead or alive. When he discovers that Hiero is alive and living in Poland, he and Chip make a trip across the Atlantic to visit him. After agonizing whether or not he should confess to Hiero the truth and to apologize for his actions from fifty years ago, Sid comes to the following realization that left me speechless, looking at the page in sullen sadness:
“He shut the door behind him. And then I known, sitting on the edge of the bed in that dark room, sure as anything in my life, that I had to tell him about the visas. That that was why I come. Not to find a friend, but to finally, and forever, lose one.”
This was the point in the novel where I had to stop reading. Up to that point I had become part of the intimate circle of Sid and Hiero’s friends and the thought that the friendship might be broken was traumatic. I stopped to reflect upon the history between Sid and Hiero, not knowing what would happen after Sid made his confession. Edugyan put me in Sid’s place, and at that moment I could feel his anguish as well as his enormous shame and sadness. Half-Blood Blues put me in the place of the jazz musicians in Nazi-era Berlin, and it carried me with the band as they drifted across the ocean to reunite fifty years later.