Jillwilson's Reviews > Half Blood Blues

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
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Jul 02, 12

Read in June, 2012

I selected Half Blood Blues because of the font on the cover of the Australian edition –a beautiful art deco rounded font. That and the author’s name – Esi Tdugyan (I erroneously thought it sounded Turkish). The font was almost right for the period – most of the book is set at the time of the second world war. The action begins in Paris under the occupation of the Germans. The remnants of a jazz band have collected there with the aim of making a record with Louis Armstrong – who did spend time in Paris in the 30s, though I’m not sure that he was there so close to the German invasion. There is a great description of Louis in the book. “His mouth was shocking. He done wrecked his chops from the pressure of hitting all them high notes over the years. His bottom lip hung slightly open, like a drawer of red velvets. He lift a handkerchief to his mouth, wipe off a line of spittle.”

She is a good writer though I never felt like the book really took off. Part of the issue was the language – the main characters speak in a kid of jazz patois for some of the time but this is not sustained – so it jumps in and out of this into more formal, traditional English prose in a disconcerting way.

What promised to be interesting was the proposition that a lot of black Americans came to Europe in the 30s to escape the racism prevalent in the southern states of America in the 30s. “The Jim Crow laws, in effect from the late 1800s right into the 1950s, barred blacks from active participation in society. In the twenties, Europe was still a place black entertainers could come to earn a good living. Especially in Germany, whose borders were kept open to foreigners due to the Versailles Treaty. Also the loss of the First World War had brought about a whole new artistic movement. The market for jazz had grown tremendously, and there was a decent following.” The early parts of the book reminded me of Mad Square exhibition that I saw last year, the disturbing paintings of Otto Dix and the growing fear and alienation in Berlin. The latter part of the book didn’t really manage to maintain the tension and drama of the situations that the characters were in. I can see it as a film – the older man Sid played by Morgan Freeman, the Hiero character by some skinny rapper – the jazz adding a layer that is hard to manage in a novel.
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