The aftermath of the fall of Paris, 1940. Hieronymus Falk, a rising star on the cabaret scene, is arrested in a cafe and never heard from again. He is twenty years old. A German citizen. And he is black.
Fifty years later, Sid, Hiero's bandmate and the only witness that day, is going back to Berlin. Persuaded by his old friend Chip, Sid discovers there's more to the journey than he thought when Chip shares a mysterious letter, bringing to the surface secrets buried since Hiero's fate was settled.
In Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan weaves the horror of betrayal, the burden of loyalty and the possibility that, if you don't tell your story, someone else might tell it for you. And they just might tell it wrong ...
Esi Edugyan has a Masters in Writing from Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. Her work has appeared in several anthologies, including Best New American Voices 2003, ed. Joyce Carol Oates, and Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing (2006).
Her debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, was published internationally. It was nominated for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, was a More Book Lust selection, and was chosen by the New York Public Library as one of 2004's Books to Remember.
Edugyan has held fellowships in the US, Scotland, Iceland, Germany, Hungary, Finland, Spain and Belgium. She has taught creative writing at both Johns Hopkins University and the University of Victoria, and has sat on many international panels, including the LesART Literary Festival in Esslingen, Germany, the Budapest Book Fair in Hungary, and Barnard College in New York City.
She currently lives in Victoria, British Columbia.
i'm glad this book didn't win the damn booker. that just means it wasn't a complete snoozefest. Vernon God Little? thumbs down. The Gathering? bleah. Wolf Hall? zzzzz. G.?? not his best. and from what i hear of this year's winner, the barnes? is not positive reviews, kiddies.
so i'm glad this book escaped that label, because when this book is good, it sparkles like a thousand year old vampire in the sun. and i was halfway through before i realized this was an authoress. not that it matters, but there was something so authentic-feeling about this group of hard-living black male jazz musicians holed up in nazi-occupied paris, that i just naturally assumed the author was privy to the way men interact with each other; the baiting and insults, the quips and bravado, the sullenness that comes from waiting waiting waiting, while the female character seemed like a perfect invention - a fantasy of talent and maternal/sexual intrigue. but not tawdry, just better-than, if you know what i mean. this just sounds so spot-on to me:
"don't go all joe bavaria on us, brother. you ain't a prude.come on. so she ain't no caviar. each man got the spice he likes. so you like old ordinary pepper."
"nothing wrong with pepper," paul agreed.
"it's black," said chip.
"that it is, buck. that it is."
well done, lady writer.
for me, i like my historical fiction to be simply dusted with historical elements. sometimes it is great to learn whopping amounts of information about a particular time and place, but sometimes the character wins the day for me. and in this case, that is what happened. i learned just enough about what was at stake for black individuals during the beginning of nazi power - i had no idea there were different "levels" of blackness, each with their particular benefits or hardships. musicians were initially more or less safe, but when the turn came, it was swift and brutal.
jazz. here in germany it became something worse than a virus. we was all of us damn fleas, us negroes and jews and low-life hoodlums, set on playing that 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 the jews, brother, now they cooked up this jungle music on purpose. all part of their master plan to weaken aryan youth, corrupt its janes, dilute its bloodlines
we lived with that for ten damn years.
or that the nazis started their own brand of jazz, to try to quell the demand for it with a whiter, more sanctioned form of the music, whose musicians used sheet music. nazi jazz - think about it - how efficient it must have been. shudder.
but in this book, sid, the narrator, is complicated enough without piling all kinds of historical learning on top of him. he is a loveable, hateable, conflicted, damaged unreliable narrator torn between his desire for a woman and his jealousy over "the kid", hieronymous falk, whose trumpet is astonishing and who seems to draw people to him like sweet baffled honey.
but, hell, i will keep going, only to say thank you to bill thompson for sending me this book, and then lighting a fire under my ass about reading it, because i may have just let it languish on my shelves without the gentle prod. when it is published in this country, i am going to order up a ton of them, and hand-sell it like mad. i loved the lilting prose, i loved the group of musicians, i felt genuine emotion for them as the story unspooled. oh, there are some heartbreaking moments in this one, friends...
"That was why I come. Not to find a friend, but to finally, and forever, lose one."
The downside of being an avid reader is that you can go through a great deal of books without really connecting to one. It's not that you're jaded, just that at a certain point it takes more to really impress you. There are, after all, only so many stories a person can tell, so plots become cliched, characters become familiar. But every once in a while a voice comes along that makes you sit up and pay attention. A voice that takes familiar notions and makes them feel fresh--alive. It sends a shiver down your spine when it happens. That is exactly what happened to me when I picked up Esi Edugyan's Half-Blood Blues--right from the first page, when she wrote "we lay exhausted in the flat, sheets nailed over the windows. The sunrise so fierce it seeped through the gaps, dropped like cloth on our skin. Couple hours before, we was playing in some back-alley studio, trying to cut a record. A grim little room, more like a closet of ghosts than any joint for music, the cracked heaters lisping steam, empty bottles rolling all over the warped floor."
If I had to describe Half-Blood Blues very quickly I'd say that it's like Cabaret crossed with Amadeus with a dash of Atonement, but that wouldn't exactly do it justice. The plot follows the Hot-Time Swingers: jazz musicians who were on the brink of greatness until World War II broke out and shattered their lives forever. First we have Sid Griffiths, our narrator, whose passion for music fills every pore on his body (on his first experience hearing jazz in a speakeasy: "I was in love. Pure and simple. This place, with its stink of sweat and medicine and perfume; these folks, all gussied up never mind the weather--this, this was life to me."). His passion leads him and his childhood friend Chip away from Baltimore and all the way to Germany, where there's a great deal of excitement about the burgeoning jazz scene. They have to go a little underground once the Nazis come to power, but leaving would be impossible to Sid. Especially after they hook up with Hieronymous "Hiero" Falk, a young prodigy who both inspires and infuriates Sid with his natural talent. Sid advocates for the kid but can't help but undermine him in increasingly less subtle ways, acting as something of a Salieri to Hiero's Amadeus. "I admit it," Sid notes. "He got genius in spades. Cut him in half, he still worth three of me, It ain't fair. It ain't fair that I struggle and struggle to sound just second-rate, and the damn kid just wake up, spit through his horn, and it sing like nightingales. It ain't fair. Gifts is divided so damn unevenly." They eventually escape to Paris with the help of the haunting jazz singer Delilah, and while this should have been their saving grace, it ends up being their downfall.
But this is only half of the story. The other half takes place in 1992, when Sid and Chip are invited back to Berlin to attend the premier of a documentary honoring the memory of Hiero, who was arrested by the Gestapo after the Nazis occupied France, and never seen again (this is no spoiler, by the way. It happens in the first chapter, and the narrative goes back and forth between WWII and 1992 to flesh out the details). The journey to Berlin stirs intense feelings of pain and guilt in Sid, but the truth is that these emotions have never been unfamiliar to him in the decades since Hiero vanished. Sid may be the narrator, but it is Hiero who drives the plot, whose spectral presence haunts every page.
It's a story of passion, jealousy, and betrayal, and while these elements feel familiar (and at times predictable), it is impossible not to fall under Edugyan's spell. Her writing is beautiful, and the way she weaves all of the plot elements together belies the incredible craftsmanship it must have taken to make it all feel so organic. Sid is an incredibly contradictory character; he says " I guess folk just ain't built to be faithful to nothing, not even to pain. Not even when it their own," but the way he has lived his life shows that he has never been able to forget the hurts inflicted on him by Hiero and Delilah, let alone the pain he caused them. Sid has lived with this ache but he is incapable of confronting it directly. I don't think it is unfair to say that when he travels back to Berlin he is hoping to finally find some form of release from his memories. So despite these contradictions Sid never feels false; on the contrary, the fact that he is at odds with himself is the very thing that brings him to vibrant life. Edugyan even pulls off one of my most common gripes when she briefly introduces Louis Armstrong as a character. Now, I generally roll my eyes when an author inserts a real person into a historical novel, but that's because most writers do it in the most clumsy, contrived manner possible. Not so with Edugyan. Armstrong's place in the story feels natural, organic. She doesn't just put him there for kicks--she makes him an integral force in the plot.
I hadn't so thoroughly enjoyed a novel this much since I read The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. last summer. Falling under a book's spell is a thrilling experience, and I sincerely hope that you enjoy Half-Blood Blues as much as I did.
This is a mystery to me. It has some excellent ingredients, but it doesn't meld into a potion that has any power to engage, and I can't quite work out why. The narrative voice I found warm, the friendly banter between characters amusing, the historical background of interest and well rendered, so what went wrong? Why did I end up hopping an' skipping over pages and pages, merely in order to find out if my suspicions were confirmed at the end? Yes, indeed, I had a horrible feeling that was exactly where we were going.
So there's one reason: the plot. Contrived, and yet strangely predictable, at least after around the half-way stage. And at around the half-way stage it suddenly slows right down to a snail's pace, a strange disease seems to hit the fan, one that causes stasis, and readerly mutterings of oh get on with it. Why hang around? The friendly banter does not fill the chasm. And on top of that, there are only two characters who seem even vaguely real or believable, the others are either names or ridiculous, one or t'other.
Jazz under the Nazis, both in Germany and in occupied Paris. Friendship and betrayal in the worst of circumstances, when betrayal can literally lead to death. And then, years later, revisiting those haunts, those people, those betrayals. This is a really amazing book.
Note: The rest of this review has been withdrawn due to the changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read why I came to this decision here.
In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook
The story of Half-Blood Blues revolves around two African-American jazz musicians, Sid and Chip, as well as Hiero, a wunderkind half-German, half-Senegalese trumpet player. The action begins in 1939 Berlin and then moves between 1992 Berlin and Poland, and 1939 Paris.
Here’s what I loved about Half-Blood Blues: the crackling dialogue, the history, and the brilliant beginning of the novel. The cover is absolutely gorgeous, and once you develop an ear for the dialect, the book is quick to read.
Unfortunately, many things in Half-Blood Blues bothered me. As soon as the characters go into hiding from the Nazis, the pace crawls. Perhaps this tempo is a result of Sid the narrator becoming a passive observer of events. He just watches all the other characters take action. This passivity meant I couldn’t get a good sense of who Sid really was, and that affected how I perceived the relationships in the book. I did not get the feeling that he was particularly ambitious (one of the possible motivations in the story, but he gets over slights quickly) and I kept wondering what the story would be like if another character had told it.
I would have loved to have seen more of an exploration of identity, half-bloodedness (as the title suggests), and the irony that African-Americans went to interwar Europe to escape the racism back home. These elements are touched upon by Sid mentioning that some of his family pass for white, his girlfriend Delilah’s “mixed-race face”, and rival Hiero’s stories about who his father was. One of the telling details I really liked was the shocking visit to Hamburg’s Hagenbecks Zoo.
But there are many contradictory details: For example, Hiero carries his trumpet with him everywhere, then suddenly does not have it with him when they flee Berlin; Sid and Chip are able to give a history lecture to Louis Armstrong about German culture, but they don’t know that France has declared war on Germany. Also, the idea that a black man was able to live peacefully in a remote Polish village during communism, doesn’t jive with my experiences of visible minorities in Eastern Europe.
As well, Sid is aware that he speaks with a dialect and claims Hiero has transposed the dialect into German. But Hiero doesn’t understand English, so how does he create a Baltimore-German accent? It’s also linguistically questionable because German has a different syntax.
There are flashes of genius when the characters start to talk about friendship, love, art and sacrifice, but the heart of the discussion comes too late in the book and ends too soon.
Half-Blood Blues did give me with a chance to witness Nazi-occupied Europe through a new lens, but I find myself looking to Edugyan’s reading list at the end of the book, to help provide the grit and details of how a person like Hiero would have survived.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
This book was ok. I didn't love love love it - I found it hard to get into (that could be because I was reading it amidst a house full of people, though). The language of the intriguingly-unreliable narrator seemed contrived (compared to George Rue, which did a better job of a similar patois).
I would have liked more music - she did a great job describing the first-person feeling of playing music, but a less good job really bringing the jazz scene in Nazi Germany / Paris in the 30s to life.
Still, I did love the descriptions of how the music sounded, filtered as they were through Sid's personal and professional jealousy:
The first time Sid and Chip play with Hieronymous Falk: "The kid nodded. He begun to tease air through the brass. At first we all just stood there with our axes at the ready, staring at him. Nothing happened. I glanced at Chip, shook my head. But then I begun to hear, like a pinprick on the air--it was that subtle--the voice of a hummingbird singing at a pitch and speed almost beyond hearing. Wasn't like nothing I ever heard before. The kid come in at a strange angle, made the notes glitter like crystal. Pausing, he took a huge breath, started playing a ear-splitting scale that drawn out the invisible phrase he'd just played."
Worth noting, Sid claims he "hated it" - although describes everyone else crying and pretty much destroyed by their first and subsequent experiences of Hiero's horn playing, including Louis Armstrong.
It didn't get truly suspenseful until about p 250, and I thought that was too late in the game. Plus the ending seemed rushed after all that lead up, and a little too expository for my taste.
What I did enjoy very much was how the characterization and character arcs seemed to mimic the band and the playing of jazz itself: the lead trumpet player, "the kid" Hiero, being the star player whom we saw take the spotlight only occasionally, but in important and plot-moving ways; and the rhythm section - Chip and Sid (drums and bass) - anchoring the narrative in both timelines. Sid's feelings towards Hiero vacillated through a lens of jealousy and admiration and fear and guilt, and as the least accomplished musician and the narrator, this both held the story together and kept it moving more or less on pace plus set up much of the tension between all of the rest of the characters. That was an uber-clever structure.
Like I said though, I wanted more music and more of the musical (and racial) history of the time.
The premise of the novel is a good one: black Jazz band in Nazi Berlin...but it is TED I OUS...the plot is unfathomable, the writing is 'creative 101' oh, lets do first person...only it irritates the reader and fails on description and indeed, any form of engaging language. After chapter two, I stopped, read a few more later in the book and the last chapter and was not disappointed - it went in the trash.
A poor plot, characters that do not engage, and only a page turned in so much as you long to get on to a page that says something.
This is an extremely well written book—not surprising, I guess, since it was nominated for both the Man Booker and the Giller prizes. It took a period in history (the Second World War) that I care very little about and an aspect of that war that had never impinged on my consciousness (the Black experience of that war) and made me care very much indeed.
The story is told by Sidney Griffiths, a black jazz musician who is performing in Europe as the war is beginning. Sid is not a very likeable guy—he’s extremely jealous of any one more talented than him and is always looking for an angle to push himself forward. For me, he is a perfect example of not needing to love a main character to be interested in what happens to him and his cohort of fellow musicians. Maybe one of the reasons that I continued to care about Sid was the comparison to his life-long friend, Chip, another seemingly amoral character always looking for a way to advance his interests. Most of the time, Chip drags Sid along with him, although he’s not above dumping Sid if it becomes obvious that his pal will be a hindrance. Sid seems to do the advance planning for the group and is often on the hook for coffee or lunch bills—he can’t escape his feelings of responsibility.
I think the main reason that I continued to care about Sid was his obvious humanity. I don’t know about you, but I’ve felt competitive, I’ve been jealous of someone who could do a better job that I could, I’ve found myself unwillingly plunged into “friendship” where I’ve felt used, and I’ve been spiteful. All the sins that Sid commits, I can envisage myself committing too. And by book’s end, we realize that Sid really does care about some of the shenigans that he has pulled—enough that he confesses to them and looks for forgiveness, an admirable act of bravery, and something that I question whether I would have had the fortitude to do in similar circumstances.
Ms. Edugyan makes you feel the oppression, taste the dust, tense with fear, and long to hear the jazz that these men perform. By happy accident, I heard an interview with Herbie Hancock the same day that I finished Half Blood Blues—and I am going have to check out some jazz in the near future.
This was my second Edugyan novel after Washington Black, which was an enjoyable read but rather too much of an impossible fantasy for my taste, and I must admit that this one exceeded my expectations. It is a well researched and cleverly plotted historical novel set among jazz musicians in Berlin and Paris before and during the early stages of the Second World War.
The central character Hiero is a talented young trumpeter, brought up by his German mother, who never knew his African father, an occupying French soldier. The narrator Sid is the journeyman bass player in his band, and the historical elements are interleaved with a modern story set in 1992, in which the drummer Chip persuades Sid to return to Germany for an event celebrating Hiero's life. Chip also tells him that Hiero is still alive and living a reclusive life in Poland.
[3.4] An atmospheric novel about a jazz band set in 1992 and late 1930s Berlin and Paris. Mostly it is about the friendship and tensions between band members, African American and German, and how they deal with the encroaching Nazi threat. The novel has lots of interesting detail and riffs but it doesn't quite coalesce. I am impressed by Edugyan's writing and plan to read more of her.
A wartime/post fall of the Berlin Wall tale about a group of jazz musicians. The novel shifts between Berlin, Paris and Poland.
It tells of the musical camaraderie and rivalry within the band and of the difficulties of a love affair, set in the context of being 'Mischling' - mixed-race, within pre-war Nazi Germany and how that carries itself on through the war and afterwards.
Its a decent story, but is let down by some descriptive padding, which means just as it is getting going, the menace posed by the SA is lost and so for about 40 pages or so the book plods. It only really recovers towards the last 100 pages, or so, which I thought were fantastic. There are also some woeful flowery similes and while I enjoyed the novelty of the Baltimore dialect used by the main characters, it didn't make a lot of sense for that language to transpose itself to German (which is what the main characters are speaking a lot of the time).
Recommended, perhaps, for war-time jazz aficionados.
I really enjoyed reading this book. I even thought that it was even a notch better than the eventual Booker winner last year, Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending. The only difficulty I had with this book is Edugyan's writing style. There are some sentences that are verbose. Her choices of words seem to me as not exact even using my limited vocabulary as the yardstick. Lastly, there also seem to to be some grammatically incorrect sentences. I first thought that the slight variations to conventional grammar could be attributed to the fact that her characters were supposedly Europeans and non-English native speakers. But those sentences were in the narration and not part of the spoken dialogues.
But if you try to forgive or go beyond those minor and really unimportant annoyances, the story is amazingly engaging. Half Blood Blues is about the 20-y/o Hieronymous Falk, a German black man. He was a pianist and he was arrested by German soldiers in a cafe during the fall of Paris in World War II.
The book is divided into six parts with the milieus and time going back and forth. Three cities: Paris, Berlin, Poland in 1939-1940 (flashback) particularly leading to the arrest or disappearance of Hiero and 1992 (present time) when his friends, Chip and Sid (the narrator), now in the eighties, are remembering Hiero. Just like that Barnes' novel, Sid is also an unreliable narrator because he withheld his participation in the arrest of his friend. Think of it like The Kite Runner meets with Shining Through because of Holocaust as its backdrop. Then don't forget to play some jazz music playing in the background as this book has music as part of its grand ensemble.
Since I am not really a jazz fan, my takeaway from this book is what I learned about that district near the border of France & Germany where France allowed to be populated by Black immigrants. These Blacks came from their former colonies in Africa. I think the idea was that France considered these black immigrants as second-class citizens so they seemed to me as the "disposables." The main protagonist, Hiero, is part of this population.
Because of this fact, it was easy for me to sympathize to Hiero's character and it kept me leafing through the pages to find out what was the role of his white friend, Sid, on his arrest.
In 1992 Chip Jones (a professional drummer) and Sid Griffiths (a base player as a young man) take a trip together back to Germany where they spent part of their youth during the beginning of World War II. They return as VIP's guests for the showing of a documentary based on their fellow band mate and trumpeter Hieronymus Falk's. It highlights Hiero legendary talent but it also peripherally covers their entire jazz ensemble. Chip makes some comments in the film that appall Sid, maybe because they are too true. Sadly Hiero, or the Kid as they called him, disappeared in 1940 and his friends fear he was sent to one of the Concentration Camps, picked up by the Nazi's because his mixed African and German heritage. Chip and Sid, both Americans though also black, managed to escape to France and then home to the US where they resumed their lives always lamenting the loss of Hiero's monumental talent. Sid has another level of guilt since he'd been at the café when Hiero was arrested.
I `m addicted to World War II lore and interested in music so I thought I'd like this book. What I wasn't ready for was how much more it was. "Half-Blood Blues" explores the nature of friendships that are formed when one is young and living in dangerous times. When Chip and Sid, as Americans were lauded almost as Gods to the German subculture who loved jazz yet they were reviled by the Nazi's they had to hide from daily. The story of the danger of those times is intense and exciting. The long slow lament of their part in losing their friend is tragic especially for Sid who almost obsesses over his role. As an old man he second guesses himself. The book also relives snippets of Chip and Sid's Baltimore childhood where they were friends, enemies and competitors and how those dynamics played out in Germany.
Edugyan explores the nature of friendship, jealousy, love and the struggle to distinguish yourself in a given field. Her characters don't have easy choices. They struggle. When Chip and Sid return to Germany they go on a journey and attempt to find peace with their pasts and current lives. This is one of those books you’ll keep thinking about long after you’ve finished it.
I just finished this novel a little less than 5 minutes ago, and all I could do was hold my breath at its denouement.
The 2 main characters throughout the story are Charles C. Jones (better known as "Chip") and Sidney Griffiths ("Sid"), both African Americans, who met on the cusp of adolescence in Baltimore and later went over to Germany in the late 1920s to play jazz. Theirs was often a contentious, sparring kind of relationship that was kept strong by their common love for jazz.
The story alternates in time between the years Chip and Sid spent in Europe (the novel's focus here spans from August 1939 to June 1940) and 1992, when both men --- now in their 80s --- return to Germany to take part in a film retrospective/discussion about one of their former bandmates, a dark-skinned Afro-German, Hieronymous Falk ("Hiero"), a jazz trumpeter in his late teens and a star in the making by virtue of his prodigious talent.
Sid and Chip had found it increasingly difficult to ekk out a living playing the music they loved in 1930s Germany, because the Nazis had branded jazz as "degenerate" and harshly suppressed it. Hieronymous was made a stateless person by virtue of his color. On the eve of war, their band broke up. But with the help of one of their bandmates (whose father was a wealthy industrialist), Sid, Chip, and Hiero were able to escape from Berlin to Hamburg, and into France. Paris proves to be a temporary haven for them (as well as Delilah, who was key to their gaining entrance to France) because by the following spring, the war rudely enters into their lives. All must flee. Hiero is abandoned and picked up by the Germans. Years later, back in Europe, one of the 2 former jazzmen finds himself compelled to face his guilt and seek atonement.
It took a long time to get to this book. When it was nominated for the Booker, and then for the Giller prize, it still wasn't available for purchase in the USA. I even ranted about it in my blog.
Edugyan won the Giller prize for Half Blood Blues, and then was also included on the long list for the Orange Prize. I finally tracked a copy down, and I am so glad I did.
Half Blood Blues goes back and forth between 1939 in Berlin, 1940 in Paris, and 1992 in a handful of countries, circling around the world of jazz musicians from the Berlin scene and how their lives were impacted by World War II, particularly Nazi racial politics.
I don't usually gravitate towards war novels, but that is merely the background of the story. The way the author is able to combine dialects from Baltimore to the German-Africans to just the jazz culture - without it being grating - is laudable. More than anything, the characters are imperfect but incredibly likeable, and the ending was amazing.
Plus, it is about jazz in Berlin, which I simply don't know enough about. I would be completely shocked if this didn't end up on the Orange Prize shortlist, with its other accolades as well as my own positive experience.
The story and characters sounded interesting, so I was curious to read the book. It could have been a special story, set in such an interesting time and locations, Berlin and Paris at the very beginning of WW-II. The characters should have also been people you don't normally encounter in a novel set at that time, i.e. guys in a black jazz band. Indeed, it could have provided some serious drama, as it is a known fact that Hitler c.s. severely objected to this 'depraved' music. However, it turned out to be a rather nagging and uninspired tale and that's pretty strange, seeing that all ingredients for a terrific story were present. I could care less about the characters. They all seemed to be rather pathetic in a nasty sort of way, except for Louis Armstrong who made a short appearance and who was the only one with some compassion. I have no idea why this book was on the Booker longlist but, then again, I suspect I should stop to expect that Booker nominated books are always worthy of their selection because it turns out they so often are not at all.
Sometimes two stories vie for attention: the story the author could have written and the one she actually did write. Such is the case with Half-Blood Blues.
If you come into this book expecting the promises of the publicist – in essence, the black German experience under the tyrannical rule of the Third Reich – you will find this book to be wanting. However, if you are looking for a book that delivers on what the author fully intends – an exploration of a one-time tight-knit jazz band with striving for fame, inter-band jealousies, and betrayals – set in the late 1930s, then this book shines. It is not, perhaps, the more interesting topic, but it is the one this author tackled, and her prose positively sings and vibrates.
We know early on that Hiero – the eponymous “half blood”, half German, half black -- is arrested in a Paris café and we know that the narrator Sid feels as if he bears some responsibility. In flashbacks from a vantage point of half a century later, Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones, two African-American members of the Hot Time Swingers band, travel back again to Europe where it all began…and the path to redemption.
So what is Half Blood Blues really about? It’s an electrifying story about following a passion (“Listen, jazz, it ain’t just music. It life.”) It’s about what we ask of ourselves and what we demand of others in the name of friendship and art. It’s about the times when pretty good is not good enough.. and how we berate ourselves for our lacking. And it’s about finally being able to ask forgiveness and to forgive ourselves for our failing, because only in forgiveness can we ever really be free. In other words, it’s about life itself and how we define it for ourselves.
From the first sentence – “Chip told us not to go out. Said, don’t you boys tempt the devil”, written in a near-musical patois, to the band’s meeting with Louis Armstrong, the man all of them worshipped, the story will hold you in its thrall. Like any musical composition, there are times when the narrative slows down – perhaps more than I would have liked – and times with a note or two is out of place. Yet many of its images are searing and the ending darn near broke my heart and not in a manipulative or predictable way.
This book has been awarded the Scotibank Giller prize and was a finalist for the Man Booker prize. The accolades are well-deserved.
This is a damn fine book. The first and last quarter were in giddy five-star territory for me, the second two quarters and the last chapter more like four stars so I’m going with that, but I really, really enjoyed it.
The story is narrated by Sid Griffiths, a Baltimore native and light-skinned black jazz musician living in Berlin just before World War II. It’s not a perspective I would ever have expected to come across in a novel, but it really put a new spin on pre-war Germany and wartime Paris. The best thing here is the jazz flavoured dialect Sid and his friends speak, which the whole book is narrated in.
The writing is top-notch, the characterizations distinctive, the climatic description of the evacuation of Paris one of the more immersive historical re-enactments I’ve read. I also loved the present-day thread with Sid and his old buddy Chip tottering around promoting a documentary. I could have done without the extensive love-interest/sexual jealousy thread in the middle, because I was really happy with this being a buddy story about a bunch of guys. But still, a really strong novel.
I’m not sure if there is a social trend going on, or if it’s just the books that I’m drawn to currently, or if literary prize juries happen to be sharing my particular obsession, but I’m reading a lot of books these days about memory.
Some of them are outstanding – Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead” tops my personal favourite list and walked off with the Pulitzer Prize several years ago.
Some of them leave me quite cold – Julian Barnes 2011 Man/Booker Prize winning “The Sense of an Ending” falls into this category. I found it a major disappointment.
Esi Edugyan’s “Half-Blood Blues”, a finalist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, stands head and shoulders above the winner in my humble opinion. (When are the Man/Booker organizers finally going to accept my offer to chair the jury?)
The good folk at the Scotiabank Giller competition must have been more sensitive to my vibes. They made the right choice in awarding the 2011 prize to Edugyan’s evocative story about the struggles of a small collective of jazz players in Berlin and Paris at the outbreak of World War II. Edugyan has a stunning capacity to replicate dialects in her characters. Her description of the transcendence of the music is so lyrical I wish there had been more such passages.
But back to the issue of memory. The focus of the “Half-Blood Blues” story is the frightful permanence of some memories one would prefer to forget and the ephemeral nature of other memories that have life-sustaining capacity. Writing also in two parallel time-lines is a technique that Edugyan pulled off note-perfect. I’m appreciative of this style in part because of my own use of it in my memoir “August Farewell.”
I had the privilege of hearing Esi Edugyan (and other Giller and Man/Booker nominees) speak at the International Festival of Authors this past October in Toronto. She has such an articulate and intelligent modesty, I wanted to whisk her away for a long conversation about writing over multiple glasses of wine. I had no such luck. The IFOA organizers and the rest of the IFOA audience, not to mention her husband and six-week old child had stronger claims on her time and attention.
Narrator Sid Griffiths and his friend, Chip Jones, are black musicians from Baltimore. To escape the Jim Crow laws, they travel to Germany, where they meet gifted mixed-race trumpet player Hieronymous (Hiero) Falk, and form a jazz band, the Hot Time Swingers. The story opens in occupied Paris in 1940, where Sid observes Hiero being taken away by the Nazis.
It is told in dual alternating timelines – one set during WWII and the other in 1992. The WWII timeline finds the Hot Time Swingers going underground due to jazz being banned, and they eventually flee to France, where they meet Louis Armstrong. The 1992 timeline follows Sid and Chip as they travel to Europe to find out what happened to Hiero. This novel is primarily a story of friendship and jealousy. The dramatic tension arises from the mystery of what happened to Hiero.
I have mixed feelings about this book. I like that it provides a different perspective on WWII, examining the experiences of black jazz musicians in Germany. The first half is very slow in developing and contains many digressions. Of the two timelines, the one set in WWII is much more appealing. The writing is an eclectic mix of southern dialect and elaborate metaphorical language. The pace picks up in the second half and it becomes much more engaging, but it was hard to get over apathy I felt at the beginning.
An unusual novel and Booker Prize finalist which uniquely brings to life the story of a group of young black jazz musicians in Berlin and Paris in the period before and soon after Hitler's takeover of France.
The narrative is told from the perspective of the bassist Sid, both then and fifty years later, as he heads from his home in Baltimore with his drummer friend from the old group to attend a documentary about them in Berlin. This revives memories of the disaster of the Nazi apprehension of their creative leader, Hiero, the mystery of his disappearance, and the guilt Sid feels over not preventing the event.
I was unaware that several thousand blacks resided then in Germany, typically descendants of immigrants from their colonies or born from interracial marriages, and that they were subject placement in concentration camps along with the Jews and other undesirables. The focus of the story is not on the Holocaust but on the challenges these musicians overcome in their creative drive to create a wonderful record before all options close down for them, including issues of trust and jealousy.
What was missing for me was an effective portrayal of the special elements of the music and what it felt like to be creating it. The perpetual mystery of the creative process is pretty impossible for writers to convey, but some succeed in crafted by methods that approach illusion. Also, I didn't feel either the alienation or connectedness of these blacks with the culture of their German home, only that the ascent of Fascism made them like fish out of water.
Okay. I really REALLY wanted to give this book 4 stars...
But the ending is so rushed I thought I'd somehow gotten a copy of the book that was short a few pages, which is impressive since I read it on my kindle.
The Ending is also a little too pat for my tastes. All along she's got this fantastic unreliable narrator who openly acknowledges that he's unreliable in the best of ways: By simply saying that he's old and doesn't really care. And this works well with the course of the story...until he starts thinking about/seeking redemption, and then he becomes hokey instead of evocative of the emotions he was supposed to stir in me.
This is really a shame because the dual narrative is really interesting, although much stronger in her WWII setting, and I was really looking forward to how she handled the oncoming reconciliations/explosions. This is not to say one shouldn't read it; it's apparent from the first few chapters why this got shortlisted for the booker prize, and it's buttloads better than the Barnes novel that did win. But it steps fairly eagerly into some avoidable pitfalls in the last third of the book that it would have done well without.
Man Booker Prize 2011 shortlisted. Interesting modern historical thriller set amongst the German, and then Paris jazz scenes, as Hitler rose to power and then went to war. Interesting looking at the Third Reich from the perspective of the small Black population in Germany; and in addition an intriguing story about a betrayal. 6 out of 12
Leggendo questo libro mi è venuto in mente che per scrivere un ottimo romanzo storico non è necessaria alcuna competenza o formazione accademica, bastano tanta curiosità e attenzione ai dettagli. Ok generalmente neanche io vado pazzo per gli adepti della "scrittura creativa", a volte ne percepisco l'olezzo sin dalle prime righe e mi provocano un vago senso di nausea; ma ci sono alcune luminose eccezioni, tra le quali certamente vado ad ascrivere la Edugyan. Un libro fatto di jazz, amicizia e fughe a rotta di collo sullo sfondo della marea nazista in Europa - con la partecipazione straordinaria di Sua Maestà Louis Armstrong! - la cui trama è intessuta bene, oliata e mai appesantita da dissertazioni (qui si vede in effetti l'artigianato di "creativa" sui dialoghi; diffusi, brevi e leggeri), attentamente depurata dai più ovvi cliché sui tempi del nazismo. Ottima l'idea di prendere quale protagonista e perno narrativo (non a caso colui che determina la "linea del basso") il personaggio più mediocremente umano, un po' egoista e un po' vittimista, nonchè il meno talentuoso.
I liked it. I did. It just wasn't my favourite book ever. I do think it was well done. It's definitely interesting. It jumps between present-day and Germany at the start of WWII and centres around a group of black Jazz musicians. I never really thought about the black community in Germany during the wars. When you think of the horrors committed against people during that time period, they're not the first group that comes to mind for obvious reasons. So the book was interesting from that perspective. The discussions of Jazz were interesting too.
But I tend not to be a huge fan of books where all the characters are some degree of unlikeable (which this one is). And I'm getting sick of these books that don't really end, or if they do end, it's ambiguous. I'm sick of getting finishing books, and thinking, "Well, okay. And..." A friend of mine pointed out that in this case the choice may have been particularly deliberate, given that a lot of jazz music can feel unfinished, and I get that. I do.
I just feel like this is one of those books that I can appreciate as being interesting and well-written, but which I personally didn't like. I didn't dislike it, but I didn't really like it either.
I'm glad I read it, but have no desire to re-read it. Let's put it that way.
So far I'm obsessed w/ this. It's amazing how Edugyan evokes the rhythm and feel of jazz with her storytelling and dialogue. What's more, the story explores fascinating issues of identity and politics with a light touch. And it's creatively structured to boot. I can't wait to see how this story begins/ends...
Update: This is one of my favorite novels in recent memory, maybe ever. It's difficult to put down, because it's just so propulsive. Edugyan is one of those big-hearted authors who can make the reader relate to, and sympathize with the narrator while also being frustrated (or even disgusted) with him. Her talents as a writer are a little startling-- I can't wait to see what she does next.
First, the way that Esi Edugyan was able to capture the time, the emotions of the men during this time, the fraught-nature, anxiety and frailty of everything. It's a great feat of writing.
Edugyan is one incredibly talented writer.
Secondly, the stacking and interplay of stories in the book, from the story re: race relations, the strained love story between Sid and Delilah, all the tense friendships and jealousies. It was all skillfully put together. The lead-up reflecting on the childhood interactions of the characters or explanation of why relationships are so confusing for Sid was well-done. Edugyan's ability to hold the line while moving forward and backwards through time was MASTERFUL. I can see why this won all the awards.
Lastly, the complicated emotions and experience of Black folks living in occupied Nazi Germany & Paris as it's being invaded felt accurately depicted. The fear and fighting. The hiding. The running. It all felt accurately detailed. All of these experiences, while trying to live your life, and engage in the creation of something distinct and potentially game/life changing — the making of an album. I loved this part of the story!! The layers. Louis Armstrong. The highlight of the effect that Jazz and Black music had/has on the world, what a formidable literary exploration.
I'm glad that this is the final book read of my all-Black-everything Black History Month reads. I didn't know anything at all about the experience of Black People in Nazi Germany. This was eye-opening — as far as Historical Fiction goes. The end of the book also included a list of books about the experience of Black people in Nazi Germany and occupied France that Edugyan used for her research, which I bookmarked for future explorations.
All in all this book was a great accomplishment of writing!
Half Blood Blues is an example of how a reread can change lots of things.
I read the novel back in 2011 but I did not absorb a thing. In fact I don't remember anything so I thought it should be reread.
I'm glad I did.
Half Blood Blues is a well constructed story. One that is about a jazz band who live in Berlin during the first year of the second world war and then they forced to go to Paris in order to record a song with Louis Armstrong. This does not work out and eventually the band's gifted trumpeter is arrested by a band of Nazis' and never seen again. The bassist of the group thinks he is the cause of the arrest and lives with the guilt all his life, until 1992, where the drummer receives a letter of the trumpeter's existence and asks the bassist join him.
The novel is not told in chronological order. It jumps back and forth, between the years 1939,1940 and 1992. Edugyan is an amazing writer so at no point does anything become confusing. The book flows and, I think, it should be read in one sitting in order to get a feel of the novel. Wonderful sentences, memorable characters and, although the plot is slightly predictable, it is interesting in piecing everything together. I also liked the way the book ended, the way life is compared to a vinyl record.
The four star rating was because I did feel it to be a bit overlong and I could see some things happening beforehand but don't let this be a deterrent as Half Blood Blues is one of those novels that should be read.
I liked the idea behind the story; looking at the lives of a group of black musicians in Europe in the era around World War II. The book started strongly but I quickly lost interest as the novel starting jumping backwards and forwards in time. I also found Sid and Chip incredibly unlikable and was relieved to be finished with this book by the end.