It’s 1940 in Paris and a jazz group is trying to survive playing their music and trying to cut a record as the Nazis take Paris. Its principal characters are Sid, Chip, and Hiero. Hieronymus Falk is a black German or a “Rhineland bastard” as he and other Afro-Germans were called. He was the outcome of a liaison between a German woman and a soldier from Senegal who was sent to protect the Rhine border. These African soldiers were usually French colonial troops. Hiero is an extremely talented trumpet player and accepts his complex condition, despite the fact that he is such a young man of only about nineteen during the war.
One night Hiero and Sid go out in search of milk to calm Hiero’s stomach. It’s late and most shops are closed. They’d all been drinking much too much suspect French home-brew and Hiero’s stomach needed calming. Unfortunately, they find a café open and Hiero is subsequently arrested by the Nazi’s and taken away just as Sid returns from the toilet, who witnesses the scene. From there, the reader will be taken on a psychological yet musical trip of love, friendship, hate, and betrayal.
The story is recounted in a non-linear fashion, jumping between 1939-1940 and 1992 and is separated into six parts. The story focuses quite closely on the long-standing and tumultuous friendship between Sid and Chip. We learn a lot about their back stories through flashbacks from their childhood together. It is a real love, hate relationship which grows surprisingly close. These flashbacks tell a lot about the personalities and desires of Sid and Chip. Though we don’t get much back story on Hiero, the story links the past and present through Sid and Chip and Hiero is the link primarily to the past. This allows the reader to discover the various themes in the different places(Berlin, Paris, the United States, and Poland) and in the different times(World War II and today) such as racism, nationality, jazz music, and of course African-American entertainers in Europe. There haven been very few fiction novels written about the Afro-Germans and this is one you shouldn’t miss out on. It’s beautifully written and Edugyan does a brilliant job expressing herself as a man as well as adopting the language of the thirties and the forties. It flows naturally and doesn’t seem forced at all.
Of course I have to talk about the bad things and fortunately for this book there was only one thing in particular that irritated me and that was the constant flashbacks and time jumping. There were just too many for me and I found that it slightly watered down the power of the story. I really had to keep it together with the details all the way to the end and it distracted me a little. I understand why she did it that way and you will too when you read it, but a little less of that feature would have been better for my reading enjoyment. You should definitely check this ‘compelling, personal, and authentic’ (Observer, quoted on the back of the book) story.
Half Blood Blues is Esi Edugyan’s second novel. Her first novel was published in 2004 called The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, which is the story of a young man from Ghana that emigrates to the New World in 1955 looking to accomplish a better life. Edugyan is Canadian of immigrant Ghanaian parents. She was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, but currently lives in Victoria, British Columbia with her husband Steven Price, who is also a novelist and poet. Half Blood Blues was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011, as well as being nominated for various other prizes including the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. She did win the Giller Prize for Half Blood Blues, which she talks about in the video that I’ve attached below. Check it out. Esi Edugyan is soft-spoken and very interesting to listen to. If you’re interested in learning more about her go to http://www.esiedugyan.com for more information on her novels and what she’s doing. Another thing that you should look out for are the different covers for this book. There is one that looks like a vinyl record with Half Blood Blues written as the song and Edugyan’s name as the singer(Wish I’d gotten that one) and the two others are Paris and Berlin.
Title: Half Blood Blues
Genre: African-American/Historical Fiction
Edition: Serpent’s Tail
My rating: * * * 1/2
My favorite quote: ”I guess he’s got to have a glamorous death. With the right kind of death, a man can live forever.” (Half Blood Blues, p. 36)