I just finished reading Half-Blood Blues written by Esi Edugyan. She lives in Victoria, British Columbia but was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta by Ghanaian immigrant parents. This is her second novel but it could be her twenty second or her first. It is a work of outstanding clarity and deep, unfathomable mystery. It feels as if it could have been written only by a sage Methuselah yet the text still reverberates with feelings embraced by all those possessing the wonder of youth. There is a rare agelessness about her writing.
This novel is a combination of many themes: history, modern times, and the sociology of bigotry, the push and pull of friendship and love, the fierce dreams of youth, the dimming, unwilling acceptance of old age, loyalty and betrayal. All of this is woven together in the tapestry of jazz and blues with the musicians who live and die with every note they play. You come to see that you are reading an epic story refined into a minimalist jewel of a novel, so lean that not one word or emotion is superfluous or staged.
It is told in a brilliant, dual structure. Reflecting on a Europe on the verge of WW II, in the years 1939 and 1940 in Berlin just before the invasion of Poland and through the early days of that war and then to a Paris occupied by the German army, it traces the story of a jazz band – The Hot-Time Swingers. The band is comprised of young ex-patriot African-American and German jazz musicians. The book’s time frame jumps back and forth from pre WW II to 1992. It follows the fate of the survivors of that story in Baltimore, Berlin and then Poland directly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The two stories weave back and forth the way two horns share the lead over a slow cookin’ rhythm section. Each time line alternately adds to the mystery and in turn reveals the darkness hidden in lives twisted by an external horror so diametrically opposed to their life affirming music. The story is told in the first person by Sid Griffiths, the bass player. In his words, he is the least talented member of the band. The narrative centers on a brilliant, star crossed young trumpet player, Hieronymus Falk, and on the somewhat, outwardly hedonist, superb drummer, Chip Jones, Sid’s best friend. Nearby is the giving, troubled spirit of Delilah Brown, blues singer, guardian angel and friend to the wonderfully interpreted Louis Armstrong. The set piece of the novel is a desperate, last gasp attempt by the group to record their own jazz composition as a cry against the darkness falling over them. Striving to lay down the perfect track while playing night after night literally under the boots of the occupiers, they have named their piece Half-Blood Blues. Sid, who is flawed, makes a terrible mistake that haunts him throughout his days. He recreates the smoky clubs and underground jazz scene of 1930’s Paris and Berlin in a German-American slang that rings so true as to be painful and funny – a combination of flowing, street banter, and jazz inflected patois – that it leaves the reader sighing. This book would read out loud, beautifully. It describes music and the love of music so vividly that if you are not a musician, you think you are one, anyway. It contrasts the joy this brings to one with the terror of living in a world in which one wrong move could result in taking your last breath.
As you can see, I loved this little novel that is part historical, part musical, all human, and told in an easy, personal manner that hides the complexity of its prose. It is without any real flaw. It is nearly perfect. I hope that you will give it a try. Its ultimate beauty may lie in something one of the characters says – something that the book has in common with a musical recording. When it is finished, turn it over and play it again.