This book packs an emotional punch. Half Blood Blues is a story of jazz and betrayal in Nazi-occupied Europe. Author Esi Edugyan evokes sensations, feelings and sounds in wonderful, and sometimes terrifying, detail.
The novel begins in 1940, with talented, young musician Hieronymus Falk. As a black German citizen, he has been forced into statelessness by the Nazi regime. In 1940 “the boots” arrest him in a Parisian café. He’s never seen again.
Omissions and Jealousy
Half Blood Blues is narrated by Sidney Griffiths, Hiero’s bandmate and the only person from their group of friends to be present during his arrest. As the Nazis took Hiero away, Sid stayed silent, out of sight. This is a pivotal point in the plot and Sid’s life. The non-linear narrative skips around, switching between the lead up to Hiero’s disappearance and, decades later, Sid’s old age, but always comes back to the events surrounding that night.
Sid isn’t always kind or pleasant. He’s jealous of Hiero’s musical skill and suspicious of his friendship with Delilah (a singer Sid finds attractive). Yet Sid is also protective of the young man he calls “the kid”.
As the novel progresses, we learn Sid’s version of events may contain omissions. But despite his faults – and Sid has plenty – he’s an interesting and believable character who shows how easy it is to be guided by emotional turmoil in a time of war.
Jazz and Discrimination
Half Blood Blues is packed with descriptions of jazz. Esi Edugyan manages to talk about music and performers without leaving musically-ignorant readers, like me, floundering or confused. She lets us know that the Nazis cracked down on Berlin’s once-booming jazz scene, labelling it ‘degenerate’.
Hiero’s Berlin bandmates are forced to scatter (some more willingly than others). Their experiences show the devastating impact of fascism on people of multiple ethnicities and backgrounds. From the perspective of African American, Sid, who came to Europe to play bass, we also see the racism that took place in the nineteen thirties on both sides of the Atlantic.
After the War
Hiero, the German son of a woman from the Rhineland and a Senegalese solider, was sent to a camp after his arrest. After the war, salvaged records mean his reputation as a jazz prodigy continued to grow.
Many years later Sid, who escaped back to America, is forced to confront his decades-old feelings of guilt. In 1992, the former bass-player and, Chip, Sid’s surviving bandmate, are asked to return to Europe. They will be guests of honour at the premier of a documentary about Hiero’s life. Sid, initially reluctant to go, learns Chip has received an interesting letter. They may finally learn what happened to their old friend Hiero after the war ended. Readers should prepare themselves for an emotional ending and an unexpected twist!
Verdict: Half Blood Blues more than deserved the Man Booker Prize nomination it received back in 2011. Esi Edugyan has created a heartrending story with great characterisation. Devastatingly sad and beautifully written this is an essential addition to your bookshelf.