Every year, there are one or two books that get nominated for All The Awards. In 2011, it was Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues. The drama in the book was almost exceeded by the drama surrounding its production, however, as it almost didn’t get published – it was one of the books going through Key Porter’s pipeline when that publishing house declared bankruptcy. Ultimately, Thomas Allen swooped in to save the day.
About the book: Hieronymous Falk was a gifted trumpet player in 1930s Berlin. However, he was also a mischling – a person of mixed German and African descent. Fellow jazz musician Sid Griffiths was the last person to see him alive before he was arrested by German forces in a Paris cafe. Now, more than 50 years later, the arrival of a mysterious letter has forced Sid to re-examine his role in Hiero’s life – and in Hiero’s disappearance.
What I liked: Sometimes, it takes only a small turn of phrase to make me fall in love with a book. Here’s the passage near the book’s opening when I gave in:
See, thing about the kid – he so majestically bony and so damn grave that with his look of a starving child, it felt well nigh impossible to deny him anything. Take Chip. Used to be the kid annoyed him something awful. Now he so protective of him he become like a second mother. So watching the kid slip into his raggedy old tramp’s hat and step out, I thought, What I done got myself into. I supposed to be the older responsible one. But here I was trotting after the kid like a little purse dog. Hell. Delilah was going to cut my head off.
“Majestically bony” was when I gave in and let the book’s voice wash over me. Half Blood Blues is full of similarly deft images, like Sid comparing a theatre building to “a slab of cheddar, that lustrous colour and all them angles.” I was amazed with how Edugyan managed to write in an extremely slangy and “non-standard” way without reducing Sid or his colleagues into caricatures. Her facility with jazz slang and with voice is amazing.
What I disliked: At one point, Louis Armstrong walks up to the main character as he’s sitting on a bench in Paris. The old master consoles Sid by saying that his gift may not necessarily be musical – instead, it is the ability to make others feel like family. While the other musicians he plays with certainly do feel that way about Sid, I remain hard-pressed to explain why: he’s not a likeable person. Throughout the novel, Sid is selfish and displays a considerable inability read other people – but those same people welcome, understand, and trust him, sometimes to their own detriment. While this is a brave choice on Edugyan’s part, it’s also at odds with how the other characters interact with him.
The verdict: It took me a while to sort out how I felt about Half Blood Blues. Initially, Sid was so unpleasant that it interfered with my enjoyment of the book, but, I soon realized that it without a splash of bitterness, it would have had no heart. Ultimately, I found the pacing, characterization, and use of slang to evoke a specific time and place so precise that I respected it in the end.
Up next: Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky