Thursday, April 5, 2012

Review: Half Blood Blues

Half Blood Blues
By Esi Edugyan
Picador February 2012 
319 pages
Finalist for the Man Booker Prize/Longlisted for the Orange Prize
From the library 

Sid Griffiths, an elderly bass player, is invited to attend a festival in honor of former band mate Hieronymus Falk. The documentary shown there reveals a secret that Sid has kept for many years. He stood by and watched as Hiero was arrested by the Nazis. Everyone believes that the great trumpeter died shortly after the war, a casualty of racism and Sid’s refusal to intervene. At the festival, Sid’s friend and former band mate Chip reveals that Hiero is not dead after all. In fact, Chip and Hiero have been corresponding and now Chip thinks they should go visit him. This revelation takes Sid back to Berlin and Paris in 1939, the scenes of some of his greatest failures.

In Paris, they meet up with Louis Armstrong and start to work on a track that will be lost and then discovered after the war. This song will forever change the face of jazz music. “Of course, the recording’s cult status had to do with the illusion of it all. I mean, not just of the kid but all of us, all the Hot-Time Swingers. Think about it. A bunch of German and American kids meeting up in Berlin and Paris between the wars to make all this wild, joyful music before the Nazis kick it to pieces? And the legend survives when a lone tin box if dug out of a damn wall in a flat once belonged to a Nazi? Man. If that ain’t a ghost story, I never heard one.”

Ms. Edugyan does an excellent job of transporting the reader to Berlin and Paris on the verge of war. You feel the tension as they go from safe, familiar places to war zones. The dialect is very unique and specific to both the time period and the circles which Sid and his friends frequent. For a novel that revolves around music, it is still very accessible to someone who knows nothing about jazz.

The characters are well-written, but none of them really find their way into your head or your heart. The novel switches between past and present, and our narrator Sid is more interesting as the old man with regrets than as the jealous young musician. The other characters feel underdeveloped, especially Hiero. Although it may have been a conscious decision to make the object of Sid’s admiration and jealousy an enigma, it makes it difficult for the reader to feel anything for him. The other musicians don’t get a lot of page time, which is a loss because the little that we do get is interesting. Even Delilah, the beautiful songstress who captures Sid’s heart, remains mostly unknown to the men and to the reader.

I liked this book. I enjoyed reading about a niche group and the unique issues that the musicians faced because are black. While this is a good read, it’s not a book I feel compelled to extol to every person I encounter. With all of the buzz that this book and its author are receiving, it will be interesting to see what Esi Edugyan does next. 


  1. I just finished this book this morning! I agree with your review - I loved the uniqueness of the perspective and the sense of place and the grime and glamour of the jazz. But you're right, I didn't totally connect with any of the characters.

    1. I'm so glad someone agrees. I always worry that I'm missing something when I don't love a book that many people enjoy.