Sometimes you try a book and it can seem a little too dense at the time, you know there is something marvellous in there but the timing isn’t right, so you put the read ‘on hold’. These aren’t books that you give up on and leave, you save them for some unknown time in the future. ‘Half Blood Blues’ by Esi Edugyan was one such book for me and so when we were choosing titles for The Readers Summer Book Club I pushed this title, not thinking that Esi (having won so many awards) would say yes, but she did, and so it was time to try it again.
What really happened to Hieronymus Falk, a young black jazz musician full of talent who was arrested by the Nazi’s in 1940? This is the question at the heart of Esi Edugyan’s second novel. Yet, told through the narrative of one of Hieronymus’ friends – or Hiero/’The Kid’ as we learn to call him – retired ex-jazz musician Sidney Griffiths (which rings all the more authentic by the style as you will see below) we also have a tale of friendship, jealousy, love, race and war – quite a powerful combination.
The mystery of what happened to Hiero is really only part of the driving force. As Sid tells us of his time in a jazz band with Hiero and Sid’s long term friend-cum- enemy, dependent on mood and situation, Chip, Paul and Fritz we realise that Sid has been living with the secret of his possible involvement in what happened to Hiero. We also watch as jealousies arise around talent and women, when the enigmatic and rather elusive Delilah comes upon the scene.
I thought that mixing the strands of tensions between Sid and Chip as well as Sid and Heiro was, for me, one of the greatest successes of the book. Be a friendship new or old, if you have it for a long time at close range, regardless of the brink of war at any point, tensions will arise and Edugyan creates these brilliantly, especially when a very famous musician comes to town. Being a group of black men there is also the tension outside of the group, the rise and fall of jazz also seems to occur with the rise of the Aryan ideal in Germany and the fall of the Jews.
“Jazz. Here in Germany it become something worse than a virus. We was all of us damned fleas, us Negroes and Jews and low-life hoodlums, set on playing the vulgar racket, seducing sweet blond kids into corruption and sex. It wasn’t a music, it wasn’t a fad. It was a plague sent out by the dread black hordes, engineered by the Jews. Us Negroes, see, we was only half to blame – we just can’t help it. Savages just got a natural feel for filthy rhythms, no self-control to speak of. But Jews, brother, now they cooked up this jungle music on purpose. All part of the master plan to weaken Aryan youth, corrupt its janes, dilute its bloodlines.”
I have to admit that I had no real knowledge of what happened to black people in either of the World Wars or the time between them. This sounds horribly ignorant I know yet at school we were very much taught about the Nazi and Jew divide and how Britain and France joined forces to combat it. Edugyan opened my eyes, through her fictional version of events, to some of the horrors that I had no clue of. I found this grimly fascinating and also extremely important. I have often said, and I don’t mean this in an offensive way, that I am bored of WWII books. Here with ‘Half Blood Blues’ Esi Edugyan gives us something really different and a completely new insight into that period in history.
The other successful part of the book are also the atmosphere of the book as we move from America in Chip and Sibs childhood to both Berlin and Paris in the 1930s/40s and even the recent past as the books shifts in chronological order. You can feel the sense of unease on almost every page, both in a combination of the mystery of Hiero unravelling and war drawing nearer does give the book a slight thriller twist. If you think that is a negative thing it is not I promise you because Edugyan merges the literary elements of the novel with the tension and pace perfectly.
“Anxiety hung over the streets like clothes on a line. When we walked them cobblestones, we seen families huddled in their apartments, crouched over the wireless. Waiters was bent over counters, listening to static. Hell, in those first tender days it seem like everyone was hunched on up over some radio somewhere, it ain’t mattered where, staying put, like if they moved they might miss the war.”
What really sold the book overall to me was the ending, which of course I won’t give away as you need to read this book if you haven’t already, and how we get to it. I cannot think of a recent book where the author has so firmly and rather alarmingly emotionally and just in terms of storyline, thrown me by pulling the rug from under my feet. Emotional twist after emotional twist comes and it is all the more powerful because the build up Edugyan has created has been so expertly drawn out, I did struggle in the middle a little with so much story and scene setting yet at the end I knew why. What connects all the most successful elements of the book is Esi Edugyan’s of course her prose which is wonderful. I don’t know if you can tell but I really thought this book was rather incredible in so many ways.
The premise of Esi Edugyan’s second novel ‘Half Blood Blues’ might not instantly sound like a book you might want to read being the tale of a group of jazz musicians in the days leading up, and indeed the start of, World War II. It was something that would have put me off if I hadn’t heard so many rave reviews about it here there and everywhere and seen it get listed for pretty much every award it is eligible for. However do believe the praise (which I am now happily adding to) as Edugyan delivers a novel that is brimming with atmosphere, is hauntingly written and will really move you (this book, clichéd as it sounds, really kicked me in the emotional guts) and it stays with you long after you read it. I am late to this book; don’t let yourself be though as it is a truly marvellous read and one I am glad I returned to at just the right time.
As I mentioned above, I read this finally because of The Readers Summer Book Club which it was the first of the selection of. You can hear myself and Gavin interviewing the author and discussing the book with special guests here.