This is my review of Half Blood Blues: Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011 by Esi Edugyan.
Since I don’t care for jazz and have little in common with hard-drinking Black American male musicians, why was I so quickly hooked on “Half Blood Blues”? At first, it was the dry, wisecracking wit, and the rhythm of the Black American speech patterns which didn’t grate as I would have expected – “he stood..leaning like a brisk wind done come up” or “Man, Sid, ain’t you ever going to clean up? You live in plain disrepair” and so on.
Then, I was struck by the spate of vivid, original similes. “He got oddly thin lips, and with the drink still glistening on them they looked like oysters”.
I realised too that there is scope for a compelling drama in a situation where a group of jazz musicians, some black, realise that the world of swing in 1930s Berlin has suddenly turned dark as the Nazis brand it “degenerate art” and begin to beat up black artists.
The author knows how to create tension. From the opening sentence, “Chip told us not to go out”, the first chapter builds up a sense of impending calamity, as the narrator Sid reluctantly accompanies Hiero, a youthful prodigy on the trumpet, in his unwise quest for a drink of milk in occupied Paris, where his high visibility as a Black German combined with a lack of the right papers place him at risk of deportation to a death camp.
Esi Edugyan takes risks in introducing the real-life Louis Armstrong to the plot, but carries it off convincingly. She also succeeds in helping me to understand the appeal of jazz music. She finds apt words to describe in detail how Hiero’s playing sounds to Sid.
“Hiero thrown out note after shimmering note, like sunshine sliding over the surface of a lake, and Armstrong was the water, all depth and thought, not one wasted note. Hiero, he just reaching out, seeking the shore; Armstrong stood there calling across to him. Their horns sounded so naked, so blunt, you felt almost guilty listening to it, like you eavesdropping.”
This is not just a tale of a jazz group under pressure, surviving violent fist fights with the brutal “boots” (Nazi soldiers) but also a subtle psychological study of the interplay between the members of a group, providing a keen insight into personal and professional jealousy. Almost until the end, we are unsure whether Sid betrayed Hiero long ago, exactly how, and if he is a reliable narrator.
Some of the minor scenes drag a little and I found a few points implausible e.g. would it really take so many weeks to make a single record, without actually completing it, would/could the seductive singer Delilah make a headscarf out of a stiff, dusty theatre curtain? Despite this, overall “Half Blood Blues” is an original, well-plotted and beautifully written work. I shall certainly look out for Edugyan’s future novels.