“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 That’s how his personality is set up – shy and withdrawn, a coping method from growing up black in 1920s-30s Germany.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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There are 18 comments

  1. 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. 🙂

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    1. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. Thanks for the comments! Some thought-provoking points in here.

    Hi Emma, Yes – it was literally a few days after the fall of Paris. He was arrested for being a stateless race-polluter, held for two weeks at Saint-Denis and put on a transport to Mauthausen. I didn’t question it really as I was reading, but I don’t know much detail of occupied France. Does it sound implausible to you? I should make clear that it wasn’t an “extermination” camp like in the later years, and Hiero wasn’t killed there, just kept there for the duration of the war. Anyway on your other point, alchemy is a good word for it! But I don’t find it to be hell – it’s difficult, but that’s why I like it. In journalism there was definitely a recipe and I discovered it early on, and after that it felt dull and repetitive. I’m glad there’s no recipe for writing a great novel – it means I can spend a lifetime experimenting and trying to get better!

    Ah Vishy, jazz plays a big part in the book so I think you’d like it. One thing I always struggle with, though, is that no matter how good the descriptions are, it’s really hard to convey the beauty of music through the written word. There are lots of passages in this book about Hiero blowing a high C or Chip playing crisp and clean on his drums, but I still couldn’t hear the music. Thanks for the Jason Lutes recommendation – never heard of him, so will look him up!

    Thanks Caroline, yes I was excited to win the Effi Briest. It’s funny that you came to that conclusion. Sometimes even a positive review can reveal things that make you think “Hmm, you may have liked that, but it wouldn’t work for me”!

    Hi Celawerd, thanks for visiting! Hope you like the book if you end up reading it. There are some scenes in Baltimore too – isn’t that close to your part of the world?

    Hello litlove, thanks for staying with me while I worked it out! I also love to work a book out by writing about it – it’s one of the main reasons why I have this blog. Glad that my review kept your lukewarm interest going and didn’t make it go stone cold. Despite the criticisms, I did really enjoy the book and would recommend it – the negative parts of the review were more about working out why I only liked it rather than loving it.

    Hi Kinna, “socially unaware” is perfect for Sid, and I like the distinction you make between that and unreliable. Sid is a bit unreliable too, because he feels guilty about his part in the events leading to Hiero’s arrest and so covers his tracks a bit. But it’s the lack of understanding of other characters that creates that barrier I talked about. I think there are reasons for it in the plot – it’s Sid’s inability to express properly his love for Delilah and his misinterpretation of the relationship between her and Hiero that leads to a lot of the story development. He also then has to spend a lifetime not addressing it and letting the guilt fester, so that it can all come out at the end when he goes back to Europe with Chip in 1992. If he were more socially aware and more self-aware, it would have been a different story. So I can see the reason for it, but there was also a cost in doing it that way.

  7. @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.

    1. 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..

  8. Interesting, maybe there’s a slip there – or “artistic licence”!

    The talk of recipes made me think of the Lester Dent Master Plot Formula. Not a recipe I’d want to follow though!

  9. 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.

  10. 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 over time and some diminish, as we look back on them.

  11. Interesting – yes, that could be a problem, especially as Sid is limited as a character, as I mentioned. If he’d come out with really insightful things in an authorly voice it could have really stuck out, but I felt it was pretty consistent. I’m not that familiar with how an African-American bass-player from Baltimore would have sounded in the 1940s, but it rang true for me! Absolutely agree about novels growing or diminishing – that’s why I like having a record on this site of my (semi-)immediate response. Sometimes when I look back a year later it’s quite a surprise!

  12. 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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