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.