Sophia's Reviews > Half Blood Blues

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
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May 17, 2012

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Read from May 02 to 07, 2012

Half Blood Blues follows a group of black jazz musicians living in Berlin in the run-up to the second world war, and later in Paris after war has broken out. It's told from the point of view of Sid, the American bass player, and focuses particularly on his relationship with Chip, the band's drummer and Sid's oldest friend, and Hiero, a young prodigy who plays trumpet. We learn of the difficulties faced by black people under the Nazis, particularly for those born in Germany as Hiero was, and of the changing fate of the music itself under this regime.

The story is told in retrospect when Sid and Chip are old men, invited back to Germany to attend the premiere of a documentary about Hiero's life. In the years since the war Hiero has become a legend, thanks to a single recording that was preserved and believed by many to be the greatest jazz record of all time. Hiero himself was presumed to have died shortly after the war, most of which he spent in a Nazi concentration camp.

The book drew me in quite quickly, and I particularly enjoyed the modern day sections and learning what had become of the three old friends. There was an air of mystery about the old recording and about some letters Chip claims to have received, and I was intrigued to find out more. However, most of the book is set during the war, and the mystery started to fizzle here, particularly in the middle section when the pace slowed considerably.

The whole book is written in a kind of Baltimore slang, which I found a struggle to keep up with at times. I also found it odd that the German dialogue was also delivered in the same patois. There were moments when the author obviously found the language limiting, and she breaks free from it occasionally with a beautiful turn of phrase which, while lovely, did upset the tone she worked so hard to set. I wish the book had been told in the third person, as this would have solved the problem and might have given us a better insight into some of the characters.

Hiero, in particular, was a mystery. That he's a musical genius is clear, but we never really get a sense of what kind of a person he is. Sid spends much of the book resenting him, but he also seems to care about him, and I couldn't understand why from the little he tells us. Sid himself is often surly, and I much preferred the 82-year-old version to his younger self. Fortunately Chip is a far more fleshed-out character and, despite his many faults, I felt like I had a much better fix on him in my mind.

I did enjoy this book, and it was nice to read a novel about such a fascinating and little-known subject. However, the slow pace, the unsympathetic narrator and the difficulties in the language meant I couldn't love it.

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