Half-Blood Blues by Esi EdugyanPosted: March 12, 2014
* CONTAINS SPOILERS
Half-Blood Blues follows the band members of the jazz band, the Hot-time Swingers, who are hanging out in Berlin and playing music. The year is 1939 and Europe is on the brink of war, yet the fun-loving musical family isn’t in a hurry to go anywhere even though the Nazis are a regular sight. When a beautiful singer presents an opportunity to work with the famous, Louis Armstrong, the band considers leaving for Paris, but it takes a violent run-in with Nazi soldiers for the group to realize their lives may be in danger. Some of them make it to Paris where they begin working on a record with Louis Armstrong, even though the war is slowly making its way to the City of Lights. When the Nazis roll into Paris, the group realizes they need to make another escape, but there’s a jazz recording that’s just too good to let go …
Fast-forward to 1992 and Sid Griffiths is an old man living in Baltimore. Sid’s old friend, Chip Jones, pays him a visit and tries to convince him to attend an event in Berlin that will commemorate their former band mate, Hieronymus Falk. Just the name of his friend sends Sid’s emotions spiralling, as he remembers the events leading up to the last time he saw Hiero alive.
Sidney Griffiths – Sid is the American narrator of the story and bass player for the Hot-time Swingers. He is close to everyone in the musical family. Everyone seems to trust him like a brother. He is a likeable character, but emotionally immature and constantly struggles with insecurity, pride and jealousy.
Chip Jones – Full of swagger, Chip has been Sid’s friend since their childhood in Baltimore. Chip is constantly annoying Sid with his manipulative ways. He plays drums for the Hot-time Swingers.
Hieronymus Falk – Also known as “the kid”, Hiero is the young, trumpet-playing prodigy. He is reserved in manner with most people, but close to Sid. Being both black and German means Hiero is considered a disgrace and without citizenship in his own country.
Delilah Brown – A Canadian singer who is an associate of Louis Armstrong. She is professionally and personally obsessed with Hiero. Sid is smitten with her from their first meeting.
- Esi Edugyan’s story goes easily back and forth in time between 1939 and 1940 in Europe, and Baltimore and Europe in 1992, with a few flashbacks in between.
- Half-Blood Blues is about brotherhood, loyalty, guilt and forgiveness. The relationship between the musicians successfully carries the theme of brotherly love right through to the end. While all the verbal banter and male bravado added humour and lightheartedness to the story, it also made it more poignant when characters are lost and reunited. However, I was pretty indifferent to the sole female character and the romance in the story (if you can call it a romance).
- Although it takes some getting used to, I liked the vernacular of the characters which is upheld throughout the book. You really felt immersed in the world of the musicians with their lingo and the peppering of what I believe is German obscenities.
- Esi Edugyan gives readers unique insight into the lives of several black jazz musicians in Europe during a time of intense Nazi racial hatred. For this reason, I found the book to be a fascinating contrast to stories about race based on the experience of African-Americans. Although even the title suggests one of the book’s central themes is race, I felt the issue was merely touched on here and there, and not fully explored as I expected.
Overall, I thought Half-Blood Blues was a great book. Full of compelling characters, I found myself engaged in the thrilling story of how the band members escaped both Berlin and Paris from the Nazis, and years later the unravelling mystery of what happened to Hiero Falk. I enjoyed the story, but felt the earlier events were more interesting than when Sid and Chip return to Berlin in 1992 and then travel to Poland to search for Hiero Falk. The thrill of the mystery completely deflated for me then because although they discover Hiero is still alive, the mystery of what happened to him is not clear. Maybe someone will have to explain it to me, but I didn’t understand the ending. Not a great way to end a book; however, what I did understand is that the love between these musicians was so strong they travelled miles to find each other to say I’m sorry.