book reviews

Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan: A Review

Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan, Thomas Allen Publishers, Sept. 2011

I love jazz—classic jazz, that is, the old-school stuff of Louis, Ella, Billie, Sarah, Coltrane. One of the very first CDs I bought, when I’d finally got myself a CD player in university, was Miles Davis’s quintessential, cozy Kind of Blue. It’s been one of my favourite albums since; I’ve never tired of it. Back then, I studied to it, I fell asleep to it, I went for walks with it, I very cheesily made out to it. Sometimes I simply lie on the floor listening to it, or read with it, its cadences brilliantly playing underneath the lines I read. And now I’m writing this post with “Blue in Green” playing softly in the background. If you click on the link, you can enjoy this review to it, and then listen to this one, “In a Sentimental Mood,” by Coltrane.)

All that to say why when Thomas Allen asked me if I’d like to review some of their books and listed Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan as one of the choices, I asked for that one.

Truly, I’ve read nothing like it. It’s one of those books, the kind you curl up with, an atmospheric story, but it’s far from warm, really, given the setting of two major cites in panic during the threat of German occupation, and in utter despair, being stripped of their former glory. What once was as beautiful as the deep ochre of a strolling bass line is now lost, given way to the disturbing image of “teeth glowing like opals on the black cobblestones,” to dark alleys and dingy cafés in which people sit heads down, noses in drinks—places that reek of fear. Yet you will be lost in this world, I promise, in another time and place. You will not solely read. You will experience.

Alternating between 1992 and the end of the jazz age in the late 1930s in Berlin and Paris during WWII, Half-Blood Blues is less plot-driven and more a confessional, documenting the experiences of a few black jazz musicians playing a now unhallowed, dying art form. The story is told from the perspective of 83-year-old Sidney Griffiths, whose poetic voice and lazy slang tell us what really happened all those years ago, when his friend and fellow musician, 19-year-old jazz prodigy Hieronymous (Hiero) Falk, a German without papers, was arrested by the Nazis and taken to a camp, where presumably he died. Edugyan’s recreation of the mood of the times is most notable, and I found myself amazed by the maturity of the material as well as the insight coming from one only 33 years old. I hope that doesn’t sound condescending; it’s not meant to be. We’ve seen this before, only less convincingly—young authors imagining times before they were born and characters well beyond their own years, and Esi has a solid grasp on not only predominantly male characters but also elderly ones. Her people are believable, distinct and fully fleshed out, just like everything else in the book.

Whenever a book is up for an award, let alone three awards, and I happen to actually read it, I’m always looking for what it was that got it there. I don’t know what the criteria are for the Man Booker and the Giller and the Writers Trust Fiction Prize; I’ve never checked. But I have my own criteria: the writing must be excellent, the story must be interesting and original, and the book must make an emotional impact on me.

Half-Blood Blues meets all of these criteria, I’m happy to say. Edugyan’s prose is as rhythmic as Sid’s bass line, beautifully, creatively, unexpectedly, sometimes humorously, phrased and powerfully evocative. There are so many post-it stickies messing up my book that it feels impossible to share how much I enjoyed the writing style, the dialogue, the way Esi strung words together. A few of my favourite sentences: “Who the real father was, Caspars claimed to know. Almost seven feet tall and blacker than a power outage.” And “To hear Hammond tell it, our recording damn near made an amnesiac of him. We blown every last thought out of his mind.” One more: “I don’t know, I guess mercy is a muscle like any other. You got to exercise it, or it just cramp right up.”

I love the way Sid and the boys spoke. And as a copyeditor, I think it was quite consistent. Whenever someone uses dialect, I’m always on the lookout for inconsistency. If there was any, it was so minor I either forgave it or missed it. I have to tell you, I really felt an overwhelming sense of admiration for Edugyan when reading this book. Read this bit, where she evokes the music. These passages gave me a thrill:

Chip’s kit was crisp, clean, and I could feel the lazy old tug of the bass line walk down into its basement and hang up its hat, and I begun to smile. Then the kid came in. He was brash, sharp, bright.

And then, real late, Armstrong came in.

I was shocked. Ain’t no bold brass at all. He just trilled in a breezy, casual way, like he giving some dame a second glance in the street without breaking stride. It was just so calm, so effortlessly itself. Give me a damn chill. … Hiero, Chip and me was so harmonious, so close in tone colour, it sounded like the same gate squawling on three different instruments. Man, it was smooth.

It was the sound of the gods, all that brass. It was the old Armstrong and the new, that mature distilled essence of a master and the boy he used to be, the boy who could make his glissandi snap like marbles, the high Cs piercing. Heiro thrown out note after shimmering note, like sunshine sliding all over the surface of a lake, and Armstrong was the water, all depth and thought, not one wasted note. Hiero, he just reaching out, seeking the shore; Armstrong stood there calling across to him. Their horns sound so naked, so blunt, you felt almost guilty listening to it, like you eavesdropping.

There’s more, even better, where that came from (page 278 in my copy, for example). By contrast, Paris, on the brink of war:

But it seemed Paris was waiting too. Anxiety hung over the streets like clothes on a line. When we walked them cobblestones, we seen families huddled in their apartments, crouched over the wireless. Waiters was bent over counters, listening to static.

Then even the skies drained out. I wished to god I’d just go to sleep and wake up in another reality. Cause I seen what the Krauts was capable of, I ain’t no fool. They like to eat old France down to her crusts. … There was posters going up, shabby gents pasting them along the walls with huge sopping rollers: tots in gas masks, flames, blond mothers herding children into bomb shelters. I watched shop clerks hooking blackout curtains in the windows, and I ain’t felt nothing but nerves.

If there’s one thing done very well in the book it’s the nervy sense of waiting: waiting for the war to come, slow as molasses, tortuous; waiting to get their promised time to record with Louis Armstrong, too. There’s a lot of hanging about in this book, and yet it’s still constructive, still moving forward, because it’s important stuff to know for everything to make sense: you get to know the characters and their motives, and it’s just as much a love story (love between two people and also the love of making music)—if not more so and in which the end of the jazz era is couched—as a story about the repercussions of war. As I said, this book isn’t so much plot-driven as an account of what really happened before Hiero was arrested by the Germans. So much you don’t know all comes finally to a cathartic head near the end, beginning when things in Paris heat up: there are about four pages of a heaving, panicking Paris written so well I like to have a panic attack, as Sid might say, just while reading it.

But no book is perfect. While this is seemingly insignificant, it caught my attention several times: the font was sometimes too tightly kerned. That shouldn’t be so noticeable, and it would have been better to have used a different font, perhaps, or simply not typeset the text as tightly.

And at the same time as the writing is so fine I could make an example of the entire book in general, I did have a few issues. The words “hell” and sometimes “damn” were overused and thus slightly annoying, and the beginning of one chapter in particular seemed inconsistent with Sid’s voice enough to make me think I might be reading someone else’s perspective. Sometimes the brilliant descriptions of things that initially made me so excited seemed a bit too precious, a little self-conscious.

But these things were quite minor in comparison with Edugyan’s major achievement—that is, what everyone else is seeing, too: “an entrancing, electric story about jazz, race, love and loyalty, and the sacrifices we ask of ourselves, and demand of others, in the name of art.” Half-Blood Blues is especially notable because Esi convincingly, very successfully, excitingly pulls off something significant: a refreshingly original, insightful, soulful, and ultimately beautiful take on that historical period which fiction has so often already adopted. I’ll eat my fedora if Thomas Allen hasn’t got their paws on a winner.

A special thank you to Anita and the publicity staff of Thomas Allen, who sent me a finished copy of Esi Edugyan’s book.

34 Comments

  1. Dying to read this one. Think we should get Clint Eastwood to direct the movie? I loved his Bird but many of my Toronto jazz musician friends disliked it on the basis it didn’t seem Charlie Parker had had any fun at all. Still – it was worth it for the music and the acting alone. I suspect you may be a Chet Baker fan too.

    Reply
  2. Steph Author

    Yes, yes I am. “Almost Blue” is yummy, and “When I Fall in Love” turns me to mush. Doesn’t he sound moony? :)

    I just…sigh…love that old sound.

    I haven’t seen Bird. I have to look that up. But yeah, hey, this would be a cool movie! I love that I didn’t think that, though. Means Esi wasn’t guilty of what so many writers are—making it sound as though she wrote it to be filmed. She wrote…literature.

    Reply
    1. Yes – this is why I feel absolutely no obligation to read Stephen King any more – the novels are merely pre-cursors to the films and another revenue stream at this point. Cultural literacy be damned. I’d rather know who Chet Baker is than what The Green Mile‘s about. ;)

      Reply
    1. Steph Author

      Thank you. If you love that kind of music, I think you’ll love the book. Though you don’t have to be into that music to like it. I think it simply adds to your appreciation of Esi’s descriptions.

      Reply
  3. Wow, this sounds really great. I noticed it at Word on the Street. I am longing for a book like that––when it isn’t just about telling a story, it’s about LANGUAGE too, about how it all rolls off your tongue in your head and lifts you up and you forget where you are, or how much time has passed.

    I was hoping I would get that in The Swan Thieves, but I am deeply deeply disappointed. It reads like a first novel.

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    1. Steph Author

      T: Half-Blood Blues is exactly that. I’m deeply deeply sorry that Swan Thieves isn’t. So weird, considering The Historians was so freaking RICH!

      I have The Swan Thieves. I’ll give it a go myself at some point, just to see.

      Reply
  4. Wow, Steph, what a beautiful review! I didn’t read it with the soundtrack, but something about your language in this review made it sound very musical to my ear — a very languid cadence. I’ll definitely have to check this out, though most probably I won’t get to it till after it wins one or all of those awards it’s been nominated for.

    By the way, I also read SWAN THIEVES. I was very intrigued by the subject matter (art!), and the cover’s beautiful. I couldn’t finish it. I can’t remember enough about it to critique it accurately, but I think I just got bored a few chapters in and gave up.

    Reply
    1. Steph Author

      Thanks, Jaclyn! That’s high praise. I’m glad you liked it because I really don’t feel all that great about it. It doesn’t feel so much a review as a comment on her writing. But I think it still serves its purpose, which is to tell you what I thought of it and why and let you decide whether it’s worth reading.

      Same thing for me with The Swan Thieves. I didn’t get past the first few chapters. The narrator’s voice was too dry. But I’ll try it again because I loved The Historian so much, which, by the way, was the first book I ever bought at Nicholas Hoare!

      Reply
  5. Sounds like we had a similar reactions to this one, and we even noted some of the same passages. (Anxiety in Paris: one of my favourite lines of the year, I think.) I, too, found the voice particularly impressive; at first I worried that I might find it tiresome after a couple hundred pages, but no: it felt organic to the story/character and I enjoyed every bit of it.

    Reply
    1. Steph Author

      I felt the same: I’m wary of dialect (The Secret Garden, for instance, annoyed me), and yet this, as you say, was really enjoyable. I loved the way he spoke. I didn’t find it tiresome at all, either. And I agree, it was perfect for the character, for the tone of the book, even for the subject matter. It made everything, from jazz to WWII and in between gel so nicely.

      It took me a week to write this post and I don’t feel very confident about it. It’s not really a review. The thing is, I liked the book so much, in terms of story and style, that I couldn’t think of what to say. I really had no issues with it and nor did it trigger any urge to analyze it. I simply enjoyed it for what it was, great literary writing.

      Reply
    1. Steph Author

      Hey! I haven’t see you here for ages. What are you doing here? You should be having a baby! :)
      Really, happy to see you. I hope you like it.

      I have another for you in mind, too. I’ll send it.

      Reply
  6. Half Blood Blues was a beautiful period piece, capturing an unique subculture. It is though hard to go head to head with Julian Barnes in Booker competition, as “The Sense of an Ending” is stylistically a gem.

    Reply
    1. Steph Author

      Hi Richard,

      I haven’t yet read Barnes’s book, but that’s what I think in general of the contests, really: although they may all be novels, it’s kind of like comparing apples with oranges: both fruit, but such different tastes, textures, colours.

      Reply

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