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Book review: Half-blood Blues

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Each year, one Canadian author receives the Giller Prize, Canada's premier literary award for fiction in English. In 2011, the novel Half-blood Blues by Esi Edugyan won the prestigious award. Betsy Kepes has this review.

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Betsy Kepes
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Imagine a jazz band in Germany in 1939. The six men in the Hot-time Swingers—black and white, German and American, Jewish and Gentile— can’t find any work. The Nazis have closed down all the jazz clubs in Berlin.

Sid Griffiths, the band’s bassist, narrates Edugyan’s novel, Half-Blood Blues. He says, “We talked like mongrels, see—half German, half Baltimore bar slang.” His language sings and swings as he describes the band hiding from the Nazis after a midnight fight with “the Boots”. The men joke and tell stories as they wait for forged papers so they can flee to Paris.

The trumpet player in the band, Hieronymus Falk, is a skinny black teenager from the slums of the Rhineland. He’s also a musical genius. Here’s Sid remembering the first time he heard Hiero play. “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.”

At the center of the novel is Sid’s relationship with Hiero, “the Kid”. Sid is jealous of the Kid’s talent but knows it makes his own music shine. And both men fall in love with Delilah Brown, a Canadian jazz singer. Delilah helps them get out of Germany to Paris, and introduces them to her friend, Louis Armstrong. The fictional characters have enormous respect for the real man, a musician whose voice, Sid says, sounds “like gravel crunching under tires.”

Half-Blood Blues goes back and forth in time, from pre-war Berlin to late twentieth century Baltimore, to 1940 Paris, and forward to Berlin in 1992. Edugyan knows how to write and her scenes at border crossings contain great suspense. When the Germans approach Paris, the supposedly safe haven for the musicians, Sid says, “Anxiety hung over the streets like clothes on a line… Then even the skies drained out. I wished to god I’d just go to sleep and wake up in another reality. Cause I seen what the Krauts was capable of, I ain’t no fool. They like to eat old France down to her crusts.”

Music is the only thing that can lift the men out of their depression and Edugyan impressed me with her ability to write about the sound of jazz. When Delilah sings, Sid says, “She swing the thick, strong rope of her voice round the words, coming down hard on them, cinching them together. Then she flung the notes bold up in the air, high and horn-like.”

I won’t even try to explain the plot in this novel, but it works well and has a couple of twists I didn’t expect. One of them made me go back to the beginning and re-read the first chapter with a completely new understanding. It was a bonus to have a compelling plot as I would have kept reading just to experience the wartime drama and hear the characters throw playful insults at each other.

In Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan created a book of historical fiction that pulses with life.

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