“Half Blood Blues” by Esi Edugyan

Cover of Half Blood Blues by Esi EdugyanThis 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 That’s how his personality is set up – shy and withdrawn, a coping method from growing up black in 1920s-30s Germany.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.

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Emma
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Already shipped from Paris to concentration camps in 1940? Isn’t that too early in the war?

Sometimes it’s hard to understand why we aren’t thrilled by a book when they are plenty of rational elements that say it’s a perfect read for us. I had the same feeling with The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano. It’s that question of alchemy between a reader and a book that make them magic and a hell for writers as there isn’t any recipe to follow. Well, you know that better than me. 🙂

Vishy
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Wonderful review, Andrew! This book seems to look at an interesting aspect of music and history and the storyline looks really fascinating. I was never a big jazz fan, till I heard a musician called Sam Hooper and discovered the pleasures of jazz. Have you read the ‘Berlin’ series of graphic novels by Jason Lutes? One of the strands of the story is about a jazz music group (which has African-American musicians) in Berlin of the early 1930s and their adventures there.

Thanks for writing about this book. I will add it to my ‘TBR’ list.

Caroline
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I’m in two minds about this. I think I would like the “ingredients” but wouldn’t love the book as such. I already came to this conclusion when I read another review which was raving, btw. Weird.
I’m not sure if you saw that you won one of the Effi Briest copies. Details are on Lizzy’s page.

Celawerd
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Celawerd

Great Review! This sounds like a great book.

Nowacki
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Nowacki

The story is too slow and I am on the 11th chapter. I will end the torrute and skip to the last chapter and hope it gets better. Maybe the book would have worked better as a short story because half way through the book and I don’t care who survives.

litlove
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I’ve seen several reviews like this one – it seems to be a book with great ingredients and good writing and something vital missing. I have picked it up on a number of occasions in the book store and always put it back down again. I’m still quite interested, sort of, in a lukewarm way. I appreciated your honest review and liked the end. I often figure out what I think about a book by writing about it!

Kinna
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Loved when you said ‘that’s it”. A socially unaware narrator (is that the right way to describe Sid?) can be quite problematic. They are manifestly different from unreliable narrators, who are quite intelligent and know what’s what but choose to hide or fudge reality in their favor. I’m wondering why the author set up Sid this way. Was there a need to? Execution is key. Pity because the plot is most interesting. Thanks for the review.

Emma
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@Andrew Blackman
I’m not a specialist of WWII but they didn’t start hunting down Jews until later (yellow star : 1942), so I’m surprised they hurry to ship off a black jazz man to Mathausen just after settling in Vichy.

There are recipes to write novels (people like Marc Levi have one) but it’s not Literature and these books won’t last.

Rudy
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I am not sure if this one is for me or not. While I like the sound of the plot, the fact that it’s a tad slow during some sceniots might bother me. I do appreciate your review though, as I hadn’t read much about this book, and your thoughts give me a little bit of a better impression on it. Great review today!zibilee recently posted..

Max Cairnduff
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I did like the review updating in semi-real time (I stayed with you!). Good to hear the voice worked for you. I had concerns about it.

This is the only Booker title this year I picked up, though I expect to get The Sisters Brothers too. 1940s jazz, how could I resist? One of the ones the Booker judges perhaps got right, since clearly it merits the attention it’s now getting.

Max Cairnduff
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That it didn’t quite ring true. That the language was that of an author, rather than the character, but in a novel where that blurring was not intentional. It may have been a false concern though as I’ve now read three reviews from bloggers I trust (including yours) saying the voice works well. I’ll find out I guess later this year when I get round to it myself. The original more critical review I read (Kevinfromcanada’s) I note got upgraded a bit over time as he found the novel grew on him in memory. It’s curious how some novels grow… Read more »

Handmade Jewelry
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Exciting story, but embarrassing and unsatisfying in my opinion at its close. In part the story of two black American jazz musicians and their German co-workers whose music and performing is suppressed by the Nazis in 1939 Berlin. Forced to flee to Paris, the two are accompanied by a Canadian woman employed by Louis Armstrong and an African-German prodigy, Hiero Falk.

Magnificently written, gripping, with the alluring, occasionally chilling, backdrop of the pre-war years, as well as a believable plot twist, Half-Blood Blues,like the best novels, seems too real to be envisioned. Strongly recommended.

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[…] or tune them out? Do they affect your reading choices? Read my reviews of Booker-shortlisted books Half Blood Blues and The Sense of an […]

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[…] art in words. I had a similar problem with the descriptions of jazz in the Booker-shortlisted Half Blood Blues last year – I wrote then, “No matter how good the descriptions are, it’s really hard […]