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Half Blood Blues – Esi Edugyan

I’ve just finished ‘Half Blood Blues’ by Esi Edugyan

Edugyan’s second novel is not only a gripping page-turner but beautifully written. Narrated by Sid Griffiths, a Baltimore jazz musician living in Nazi Berlin in 1939, the voice thrums like his deep string bass in flawless syncopated rhythms. The novel begins in Paris in 1940. Listen to the sound of Edugyan’s language as Sid describes a recording session:

‘…A grim little room, more like a closet of ghosts than any joint for music, the cracked heaters lisping steam, empty bottles rolling all over the warped floor. Our cigarettes glowed like small holes in the dark, and that’s how I known we wasn’t buzzing. Hiero’s smoke not moving or nothing. The cig just sitting there in his mouth like he couldn’t hear his way clear. Everyone pacing about listening between takes to the scrabble of rats in the wall. Restless as hell. Could be we wasn’t so rotten, but I at least fell off. Too nervous, too crazed, too busy watching the door. Forget the rot. Forget the studio’s seclusion. Nothing tore me out of myself. Take after take, I’d play sweating to the end of it only to have Hiero scratch the damn disc, toss it in the trash.’ Edugyan’s supreme skill is to maintain this voice faultlessly throughout the book.

The novel is about jealousy, friendship and betrayal. The story moves between wartime Berlin and Paris and 1992. It shows the persecution of black Germans by the Nazis as the Hot-Time Swingers, Sid Griffiths a half black Baltimore bassist, Chip C Jones, the drummer also black and from Baltimore, Hieronymus Falk, black German trumpeter, Ernst von Hasselberg, rich boy German clarinettist, Fritz, the German saxophonist and Paul their Jewish pianist attempt to keep playing their music as the Nazis declare it degenerate. In retrospect, Sid describes the reputation of the Hot-Time Swingers as an illusion: ‘A bunch of German and American kids meeting up in Berlin and Paris between the wars to make all this wild joyful music before the Nazis kick it to pieces?’ Edugyan shows the grim reality: the fear, the dives, the hiding and running, all in counterpoint with their passion for jazz and their hunger for perfection.

It is this music and their passion and hunger that makes the novel steer through the obstacles set before the characters. They are hiding not so much behind their music as inside it and the quest for perfection is their steel and ammunition. Louis Armstrong is their hero and he makes a few appearances in the story. He says to Sid at one point: ‘”But music,well it’s different. I reckon it got its own worth. But it ain’t a man’s whole life.”‘ But in their troubles, it’s music that’s the glue that holds these characters together and when it weakens, they too fall apart.

Trumpet prodigy, Hieronymus Falk, Hiero (and he is the Hero) is the main focus, if not the main character in this story but by taking an oblique viewpoint, using Sid Griffiths as narrator, we watch the story from the sidelines. In so doing, Edugyan leaves gaps in the plot but the risk more than pays off. Not only is Sid’s language poetic, he is the antithesis of heroic. Sid is a reluctant leader. He loves and hates and fails and acts appallingly. It is because of him that the novel is so rich in its humanity and achieves redemption at the end.

Half Blood Blues was shortlisted for the 2011 Mann Booker Prize and now for the 2012 Orange Prize. Let’s see how it fares.

http://www.esiedugyan.com/

http://www.orangeprize.co.uk/prize.html

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About writing, trickery and a little music