It is not easy to write a book with Jazz as the main character that is always lurking as the “backdrop”. In fact it isn’t easy writing about music at all; no matter how tuned you are to it and what your sensibilities are made of. Esi Edugyan manages it wonderfully through his book, “Half-Blood Blues”.
“Half-Blood Blues” alternates between 1992 and 1939/1940, whose major characters are three African-American men who met in Weimar, Germany playing together in a jazz group. The book brings out the world inhabited by these three men and their longings, passion, betrayal over the years, while the music silently plays on.
The tale is narrated by Sid, and he moves in time, back and forth to unfold the story of a talented trumpet player, Hieronymus Falk. The musicians struggle against the growing danger of Nazism and each experience varying degrees of safety (or lack of it) in Europe based on their background and citizenship. One of the most endangered is Hiero, a German of mixed race who is taken by the Nazis one night and never returns. Sid witnesses this and the major focus of this novel is Sid’s guilt as he grapples with what he did and what he did not to save his friend’s life.
The book in itself reads like poetry at times. Esi has a knack of writing and presenting the story in a manner that is graceful, lyrical and sometimes heart-breaking. The novel explores the other side of World War II, the persecution of Blacks and German “Mischlings” in Germany. What I loved was that the book is set against the backdrop of Jazz, which was then banned in Germany because of it being seen as, “degenerate”. So there are two biases – one against a set of people and second against a genre of music, both of which are wonderfully brought to surface by Esi Edugyan.
Esi allows the reader to explore the world through Sid’s eyes, where everything is not wrapped up tidy and neat. She creates the historic context, allowing readers to live there for a while with her flawed characters. She makes you think about what it would be like to live in a world where everything seems and has gone wrong, where may be music is the only thing left that one can rely on completely and unconditionally. Music is the only thing that seems to make sense at times.
Esi has a powerful voice though at times I felt disconnected from the book however came back to it to be enthralled for a while. Read it if music and identity interest you together. It is a great combination though.