Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

Purchased from AbeBooks.com

Half Blood Blues, the second novel from Canadian author Esi Edugyan, is still two weeks away from its Canadian release but already the book has acquired a “story” — one that invites comparison with last year’s Giller Prize winner, The Sentimentalists, and its intriguing publishing history. Edugyan’s novel was scheduled for release in February this year but got caught in the bankruptcy proceedings which led to the shutdown of publisher Key Porter. Thomas Allen has rescued the book and it will be out later this month. In the meantime, a UK version published by Serpent’s Tail is on the market — and it has made the Booker longlist.

For this reader approaching the novel, there was both a downside and an upside, so let’s admit the biases upfront:

The downside: It is another Holocaust novel, set in pre-war Berlin and early war Paris. So much very good fiction has been written about this period that many readers (including KfC) have a sense of “enough”. If you are going to use that framework which so many excellent authors have used before, the book has to be very, very good.

The upside: The central theme in the novel is about jazz musicians in Europe in the pre-war years. The Jim Crow atmosphere in the United States led many creative blacks (painters and writers as well as musicians) to head to Europe in the 20s and 30s where the atmosphere was friendlier — and then it became deadly. A good bit of non-fiction has been devoted to that phenomenon but there has not been a lot of fictional work.

Half Blood Blues opens in Paris in 1940, in a decrepit recording studio. A jazz quartet has been working on a number and their leader, Hiero, has dismissed the latest effort as “just a damn braid of mistakes”:

Did that ever stun me, him saying this. For weeks the kid been going on about how dreadul we sound. He kept snatching up the discs, scratching the lacquer with a pocket knife, wrecking them. Yelling how there wasn’t nothing there. But there was something. Some seed of twisted beauty.

That quote gives you a flavor of the jazz side of the story (and the twisted lingo that will pervade the book). Here is another excerpt, only a few paragraphs later, that supplies an indication of the political environment:

We lined up the empty bottles along the wall, locked up real quiet, gone our separate routes back to Delilah’s flat. Curfew was on and Paris was grim, all clotted shadows and stale air. I made my quiet way along the alleys, dreading the sound of footsteps, till we met up again at the flat. Everyone but Coleman, of course, Coleman was staying with his lady. We collapsed onto dirty couches under blackout curtains.

I’d set my axe against the wall and it was like I could feel the damn disc just sitting there, still warm. I felt its presence so intensely it seemed strange the others ain’t sensed it too. Its wax holding all that heat like an altar candle.

The narrator is Sid, the bassist in the quartet, and he has secretly lifted the master copy of the latest recording effort, before Hiero can destroy it. Hiero (properly Hieronymous Falk) is a brilliant 20-year-old black trumpeter — German-born, but of mixed breed (note the title of the novel), which is a disastrous mix in Nazi Europe. Coleman will soon disappear from the story but the fourth member of the quartet, Chip, the drummer, will loom even larger as the novel proceeds.

Delilah is the unifying force at this stage of the novel. A vocalist, she hooked up with the group in Berlin a few years earlier and more than one of them fell in love with her. She is also a good friend of Louis Armstrong (yes, he was in Europe at the time and does appear in the novel) and had originally set them up to do a recording with him. The Nazi takeover of Berlin put paid to that but the musicians have managed to move on to Paris, although a number of their comrades have been abandoned, captured or distracted along the way. Despite advice to escape Paris now that a German invasion is on and Delilah’s access to well-forged documents and passports providing the opportunity to do that, they are sticking around to complete their recording — and the work is obviously not going well.

If the Paris sessions are the centrepiece of the novel, Edugyan also supplies a back story in the form of how this crew came together and what the atmosphere was like in the cabarets of pre-Nazi Germany. More important to the structure of the novel, however, is the “post story”. A half century after this Paris experience, Sid (who was never very good as a bassist and left jazz some decades ago) and Chip (who built a successful career as a jazz drummer) are headed back to Berlin.

That studio disc that Sid purloined happened to survive, along with a handful of others that the group had recorded in Berlin. An academic has produced a publication that in turn led to “cult” status with a focus on Hiero (SPOILER: He was captured by the Gestapo and last seen headed to a concentration camp). A famous documentary director has picked up the story, with interviews from both Sid and Chip featured in the film and the two elderly men are on their way to post-1989 Berlin for the premiere. The strength of Edugyan’s novel is the way that she knits these three stories together.

If you have been following the Booker longlist or are a regular visitor here, the overarching structure of Half Blood Blues is raising some obvious comparisons — Alison Pick’s Far To Go. This novel starts with Kristallnacht, that one Kindertransport. Pick develops her wartime story by concentrating on a Czech family that chooses to stay behind despite the obvious danger, just as Edugyan’s musicians do. And both novels have a “present tense”, a half century down the road — the trauma produced by those times has never gone away.

Despite my interest in jazz and jazz fiction, Pick emerges as a clear winner on this comparison. The “war” part of Half Blood Blues is shallowly told and adds nothing to previous work. The curious “lingo” that the author uses in the book is forced and unconvincing. Most disappointing is that the jazz aspect of the story simply never comes together. If I can again resort to comparisons with Pick’s novel, she captures (realistically, painfully and emotionally) the challenges and heartbreak that the parents in her novel faced — Edugyan simply never develops a version of that for the musicians in her novel.

Half Blood Blues has not attracted a lot of attention, so I have not seen a review that enthused about the book. I salute Thomas Allen for making sure that it has been published in Canada — I’ll admit that I can’t see what the Booker jury found in it.

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21 Responses to “Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan”

  1. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I was very interested in this one because of the subject matter – jazz. I’m deeply suspicious though of holocaust novels – both too easy (instant seriousness and pathos) and as you note too well done by others.

    More problematic though is the narrative voice. I’m not persuaded by it. It’s part colloquial, of it’s time and character, but also part authorial. Twisted seed. Clotted shadows. I don’t buy it. That’s a writer’s voice, not the character’s.

    I note you found the lingo strained too. I’m sure it will have it’s fans and I don’t at all begrudge it a wider audience or greater attention, but it doesn’t at all sound like a Booker novel and I wonder how good an idea it is to portray it as one (did it help Child 44?).

  2. Guy Savage Says:

    This one caught me eye as it’s a Serpent’s Tail title. I tend to like their selections, but I’m with Max–don’t care for the voice.

    Thanks for the review.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max, Guy: I wanted to like this novel because of the jazz angle as well. And the voice did become a major issue for me — it made the entire novel seem clumsy and Max is right, it is an authorial device, not a character’s. The author could have offset that, for me, by paying more attention to the music, but I am afraid those passages didn’t work either. I salute the author for her ambition but for me at least the execution was lacking. And given that Alison Pick met a similar set of challenges with Far To Go this one ends up seeming less that it probably is.

  4. savidgereads Says:

    This was one of the longlisted titles that I hadn’t heard of, mind you there were a fair few of those, and is one of the ones I am really looking forward to (because she is a new author to me and I always like that) and am slightly trepidatious about (because of the jazz stuff not the holocaust issue, though I agree the latter is in alot of fiction but its a huge event in history). I have it on the TBR and am just waiting for the right moment to start it. I know my mood could well affect this one.

  5. kimbofo Says:

    Thanks for your review, Kevin — it’s the first I’ve seen of this book. I’m completely with you re: bias. I’ve read more than enough Holocaust novels so it has to be exceptionally good for me to want to pick another one up. Admittedly I am struggling with Alison Pick’s Far to Go, which I’ve been reading on and off for almost two weeks now. Part of the reason, I think, is that it just isn’t exceptional enough to really keep me excited about reading it. Perhaps it’ll get better the further I get into it… ?

    • Sazerac Says:

      Kimbofo and Savidgereads, it’s a while since you posted so you may already have got to ‘Half Blood Blues’, or decided not to, but I’d just say that in spite of appearances, it’s not really a ‘Holocaust’ novel per se. In my reading of it, it’s about the inter-relationships between a small tight group of people, and specifically about one character’s jealousy of another. The war setting allows for the examination of very interesting – and somewhat neglected – issues, but the bottom line is betrayal, and while the war provides a hugely dramatic backdrop, one could imagine the basic theme/story being transposed to another time or another place. Kindertransport, on the other hand is by definition rooted in its time and place. If you can handle the narrative voice, it’s worth a read.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: If you are struggling with Far To Go, I am pretty sure you would not find this one rewarding — unless the jazz angle holds special appeal for you.

    As for Far To Go, I think it succeeds if the reader engages with the emotion of the parents’ struggle to choose to send their child to “safety” (and perhaps never see him again) or take the risk (which proved to be even greater) that things would not get too bad. As I said in my review of Far To Go, I have found the Kindertransport story interesting so that probably made it easier for me to enrol in the project. My guess would be that if you are struggling at the halfway point, it is not going to get better for you.

  7. Sazerac Says:

    I think I’m on my own here so far in having enjoyed ‘Half Blood Blues’. I don’t think the war is really the Main Theme, and if it is, I confess that there were angles I had not properly considered before that this book made me think about. I agree that if the voice doesn’t grab you from the start, there’s no point in continuing; but it did grab me and, having done that, it swept me along. I agree with Max that some of the phrasing seemed more ‘authorial’ than the character’s own, but I was willing to overlook those ‘Strange Fruit’ moments from a jazz musician if I had to construct an excuse. (For a truly unbelievable piece of authorial voicing from start to finish, I refer you to the Barry book.) I don’t think jazz was the main theme either, and don’t necessarily feel that introducing more on that would have added anything. Overall for me so far it certainly gets into position for the shortlist ahead of ‘Jamrach’, ‘Jessie Lamb’, ‘Last Hundred Days’, ‘Cupboard Full of Coats’, and ‘Canaan’s Side’.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sazerac: I’m glad to see someone commenting who liked this novel (I suspect very few people have actually read it — it hasn’t been released in Canada yet). While it did not work for me, I did find enough in it that I can see where it would have appeal to others.

  9. winstonsdad Says:

    I wad very keen on this when I review it I felt Esi had grabbed a part of pre war history that had been missed we see as background figures in books by the like of Isherwood The jazz folk and brings them front stage it also hold the two storylines well of past and present and has a surprise ending I m pleased it made shortlist

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Stu: I’m finding that the parts of this that I didn’t like are fading and the parts that I did are getting stronger. Now that it has made the Giller longlist as well, I plan to give it another read. I suspect I might have been expecting more from the jazz angle than Edugyan chose to deliver, which might have effected my first impression.

  11. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ve actually just picked this up. I read a few pages at the start, and my reservations about narrative voice remain very strongly present, but I note it’s grown a bit (I don’t want to overstate there) in your memory Kevin and the jazz angle even if not the largest part of the book is interesting to me.

    I should read it over the next couple of weeks, which means bizarrely (for me) I may actually blog a booker shortlisted novel while the booker is still going on (not that I know when the award date is come to think of it, and not from what I hear that I expect this one to win).

    Anyway, my expectations are adjusted thanks to your review. Hopefully that will help me enjoy it more. Going in expecting booker fiction is one thing, going in expecting a flawed novel which may grow on me is quite another. The former sets me up for disappointment, the latter hopefully for a pleasant surprise if I end up liking it.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: It is interesting how expectations can so greatly influence how one reacts to a novel. I’ve tried to learn to discipline myself, but haven’t been successful — I’m heartened that you were able to approach this with realistic ones. And it is good to read that you are finding it interesting so far.

  13. Colette Jones Says:

    This is the last of this year’s Booker list that I am intending to read, and I found it very good; in fact it has displaced The Sisters Brothers to second on the shortlist for me. I do not read reviews at all before reading a book – I sometimes glance at first and last paragraphs to see if the reviewer liked it or not, but I hadn’t in this case. I rate it much higher than Far to Go, so I think it just comes down to personal taste. I thought Edugyan did an amazing job with the narration and not once did I feel author’s intrusion, something I have seen in other of this year’s books, e.g. At Last by Edward St Aubyn (though I really did like that book).

    Back to comparison to The Sisters Brothers, a good fun book, but not a lot to ponder. Half Blood Blues was enjoyable as well as offering food for thought.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: An interesting observation that I do think has value. If you engage emotionally with Pick’s book (and I did, as did others) I think it is a better book. If you don’t — and I can understand that — this is the better book. If I can get done the Giller longlist in time, I intend to come back to this novel. I do suspect it is a better book than this first reviews indicates.

  15. Sazerac Says:

    As I’ve been a fan of this novel from the start, I’m glad not to feel so lonely anymore. (Though I still don’t see anything comparable to the Barnes on the list, and even that has its slight flaws.) I’m now pondering that comment on ‘emotional engagement’. If you don’t engage emotionally with a book, then it’s a lesser book? Emotional engagement makes a book good? That leaves the way open for a lot of drivel to be considered ‘good’. Or might it be that if a book fails to elicit an emotional engagement, then that indicates a fault in the book? What exactly is ‘emotional engagement’, and when does it tip into sentimentality? Hmm. And I thought it was going to be a quiet day here in cloudy old Ireland.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sazerac: The readers who like Pick’s book, as far as I can tell, “engaged emotionally” with the struggle of the parents as to whether to make their child part of Kindertransport. That made it a better book for them. Those readers who did not “engage” in that struggle find the book flat, the circumstances better portrayed in other books and so on. What worked for one group of readers didn’t work for another — that’s hardly unsual.

    My comment in no way suggests that failing to engage emotionally in a book makes it a lesser book or vice versa (and I know you are being playfully specious in suggesting that I am saying that).

    That kind of engagement is one of many traits (great characters, strong prose, wonderful story, just for a start) that may cause a reader to find value in a book. And I certainly agree that one reader’s emotional engagement is another’s sentimentality — check out the varied responses to Room for an illustration on that one. And the trait doesn’t just apply to so-called “soft” books — one of the reasons that I liked Philip Roth’s Nemesis much more than many did was because of exactly this trait.

    The irony of this exchange is that I am frequently criticized for not appreciating the emotional appeal of books — a criticism that I am inclined to accept. More often than not I am on the side of the argument that describes whatever this is as sentimentalism. Which is perhaps why my response to Pick’s book surprised me.

  17. RickP Says:

    Kevin,

    I definitely look to your opinions as a good guide. I find myself often aligned with you. As I mentioned in a post elsewhere, I was hoping that somewhere in my remaining reads on the Booker list that I’d disagree with you. This was not just to disagree but because the ones I hadn’t yet read were poorly reviewed by you.

    I found it in Half Blood Blues which is easily my second favourite of the 8 that I’ve read. Barnes is still quite easily first but this book really captured me.

    It would be wrong to say that the Nazis were incidental as that environment was key in the musicians’ predicament but Edugyan didn’t really dwell on the atrocities.

    I found Sidney to be a very deep character with his jealousy of Hiero and his strange closeness with Chip who didn’t seem to deserve his friendship. Haven’t we all had a friend who didn’t really deserve friendship but we just put up with. I also liked the struggle in Sidney with Delilah, another cursed relationship.

    I liked the backdrop of jazz musicians in Nazi Germany and I liked the story of Hiero’s genius but this really worked for me because of the very imperfect Sidney and his love, jealousy and remorse.

    Very positive review from me.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: Well you might find that you are part of changing my opinion :-). As some comments have indicated, I’ve read enough positive thoughts about Half Blood Blues to cause me to think I may have missed something on my first read. (Despite my review, I’d still have it third on my Booker list so I hardly disliked it — we share the same personal favorite.) I suspect my enthusiasm for Far To Go may have caused me to make some comparisons that led me away from aspects of the book that others have found strong. I do intend to find the time to give it another read.

  19. Sazerac Says:

    RickP is singin’ my song. This whole book is like a jazz solo, and you have to applaud at the end. The character of Sidney is so well crafted. The Nazis are certainly not incidental, but you could imagine the bones of this story in other guises – Othello/Iago; Mozart/Salieri. It’s well behind the Barnes overall, but it deserves any recognition it gets. However, I fear that if there’s a surprise winner (i.e. not the Barnes), it might well be the psychopathic cowboys.

  20. Colette Jones Says:

    I agree, Sazerac. I think it’s an easy second on the shortlist, but the only fully deserving entry other than Barnes. The judges probably like it for a different reason, as they don’t seem too keen on good literature! I get the impression that this panel is not re-reading the longlist and shortlist as I had believed was part of the deal. It should take a very good book to survive three readings, but then they do sometimes choose one that I could not abide the first time.

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