This book has it all: a compelling story, a great setting (black jazz musicians in Nazi Germany and occupied Paris), lyrical prose that perfectly captures the voice of the bass-player narrator, Baltimore-born Sid Griffiths, while also weaving in elements of the music it describes. It has jealousy, betrayal, a nice twist in the ending, and yet… I liked the book a lot, but I didn’t love it. When I describe it I feel as if I should have loved it, been truly blown away by it, but I wasn’t. I liked it, but that’s it. I’m struggling to understand why. Maybe by the end of the review I’ll have got closer – stay with me!
The story first of all: it starts in Paris 1940, with a group of young jazz musicians lying around drunk and hungover in their recording studio, two of them going out for milk, and one of them, the genius trumpet player Hieronymus Falk, being arrested by the Gestapo and shipped off to a concentration camp. Then it switches to Baltimore 1992 and Sid Griffiths as an old man on his way to a festival celebrating the work of the posthumously-famous Falk, and from there it shuttles back and forth between the past (Berlin 1939 to Paris 1940) and the present (Sid and his friend Chip trying to find out what really happened to Hiero, and wondering whether to believe in the possibility that he’s alive after all).
The time shifts work well, and there’s plenty of suspense all the way through. Edugyan also handles very well the growing sense that things are not quite as they were described in the first chapter, by introducing jealousy, bitterness and rivalry within the group, both over differences in talent and over a woman, Delilah. The writing is good, a convincing evocation of the voice of the African-American narrator Sid Griffiths. Here’s a sample of the voice, from the first paragraph:
Chip told us not to go out. Said, don’t you boys tempt the devil. But it been one brawl of a night, I tell you, all of us still reeling from the rot – rot was cheap, see, the drink of French peasants, but it stayed like nails in you gut. Didn’t even look right, all mossy and black in the bottle. Like drinking swamp water.
Perhaps part of the problem was that although we spend a lot of time with the characters, some of them remain unclear (to me at least). Hieronymus Falk, Hiero, “the kid”, the tragic genius, is quite anonymous. That’s how his personality is set up – shy and withdrawn, a coping method from growing up black in 1920s-30s Germany. Sid is very convincing, since he is the narrator and we have full access to his thoughts. But the other band members are less distinct, particularly at the beginning when there are six of them and a lot of ensemble scenes where they all joke around with each other but you don’t develop much sense of the individuals. Later on things focus in on Sid, Chip, Hiero and Delilah and then things become a little clearer, but even then I didn’t really feel the characters fully.
Read my review of fellow Booker shortlisted book, and eventual winner, The Sense of an Ending.
Much of this, of course, is because Sid is the narrator and he’s not always very perceptive. He misreads others’ intentions, misunderstands them, and so his limited perspective holds us back from seeing the other characters fully. Yes, I think that’s it! It’s effective as a plot device, but acts as a barrier between the reader and the other characters. I think that’s the main thing that held me back from loving this book wholeheartedly. But as I said, it’s still a really good read with plenty of good writing and a compelling story that’s just begging for a film adaptation. Sense of an Ending is still my favourite to win the Booker, but this one certainly merits its place on the shortlist.