Hiero and me threaded through Montmartre’s grey streets not talking. Once the home of jazz so fresh it wouldn't take no for a answer, the clubs had all gone Boot now. Nearly overnight the cafés filled with well-fed broads in torn stockings crooning awful songs to Gestapo.
The book takes place in Berlin in Paris in the 1930s and '40s then fifty years later in America and Europe, in alternating chapters. It follows the possibly slightly unreliable narration of Sid, an mixed race bass player from Baltimore who's on the European jazz circuit right before World War II. It follows the mystery of what happened to Hieronymus, a brilliant young trumpet player; how and why they were recording in Nazi-occupied Paris, and what Louis Armstrong has to do with any of this. It's very much a love poem to jazz, but also a comment on how love poems to jazz can land you in a lot of trouble.
I think I loved this book mostly for it's language. It's written in close first person, in varying levels of vernacular, and the flow and sway of the prose is beautiful, laden with humour and surprising. Also the difference in tone between the sections set in the '30s and '40s and the stuff in the '90s is subtle and well done. It's clearly the same narrator, but also clearly one who's deeply altered by the intervening time.
The structure of the mystery plays out very elegantly as well. The sooner something is made clear to the reader, the more questions it opens, and one moment will turn everything on its head then around again until the whole book has a completely different perspective. Given that, it doesn't feel artificially constructed or too clever for it's own good. The order the narrator tells the story in makes sense for the story. I should make time to read it again, because I think it would play out rather differently the second time through. My only real complaint was that the ending felt abrupt and a little unresolved, but I suspect that was intentional on Edugyan's part.
I found the characters vividly drawn, and not especially likeable, but not to the point where I hated them. Edugyan managed a balance of sympathetic yet deeply, deeply screwed up people, while exploring how they got that way. There was a love triangle element that irritated me, and felt a little unneeded, but it didn't take up as much of the plot as I thought it was going to.
I was also worried that the book was going to focus on Nazis Are Bad to the point of fetishisation, but it really doesn't. The Nazis certainly do horrible things, and that drives the plot. It's not a story that could take place anywhere or when else, but the Evils of World War II don't overwhelm the story. That said, I'd certainly warn for dehumanisation, racism, anti-Semitism and sexism, and not entirely just on the part of the Nazis. If that's not the kind of thing you're comfortable reading about, perhaps best avoid this book.