Half Blood Blues – Esi Edugyan
Serpent’s Tail, 2011
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *
Half Blood Blues traces the story of Sid, Chip and Hiero, three band mates who played jazz together in 1939 Berlin and 1940 Paris. In the aftermath of the German occupation of Paris in 1940, Hiero is arrested in a cafe and never heard from again. Fifty years later, Chip and Sid travel back to Berlin to visit a festival organised in honour of Hiero, who is hailed as a genius trumpet-player. While in Berlin, Chip brings up a mysterious letter he received. Subsequently, their trip to Berlin turns into more when secrets about what really happened in Berlin and Paris back then resurface.
As is shown on the front cover above, the book is sold as being about “Two Friends, One Betrayal”. This is not exactly what made this book stand out for me. It was a question that occupied me while reading it – what was the one betrayal? – as there are many examples of smaller betrayals throughout the book. However, it isn’t the betrayal in a World War II setting that makes this book unique, actually, it could be considered the most standard element of Half Blood Blues. Instead, two other things stood out to me.
First, it is important to be aware that this is a book about race as well as the Second World War. Hieronymous Falk is a black German citizen. Chip and Sid are both, like Hiero, children of mixed parents.* However, unlike Hiero, they are citizens of the US. Half Blood Blues tells the story of three individuals and how they suffered from the nazi regime and their race policies. It becomes pretty clear that this is an area that is difficult to navigate: ambivalent policies, different qualifications corresponding to race and nationhood, blurry historical records, collective amnesia. All are in some way discussed through these 3 individuals. And this is one of the things that makes Half Blood Blues such a daring and “fresh” book set in World War II.
The second thing that stood out was the narration of the book. The story of the three boys is told from the point of view of Sid. Half Blood Blues is very much about his personal memories and coming to terms with their shared past. And Sid has a very distinct voice, that I had to get used to at first, but that is recognisable and atmospheric to some extent. I’ll give you an example of the very first paragraph, as I’ve been trying to write down my thoughts on it, but only seem to babble nonsense:
“Chip told us not to go out. Said, don’t you boys tempt the devil. But it been one brawl of a night, I tell you, all of us still reeling from the rot – rot was cheap, see, the drink of French peasants, but it stayed like nails in you gut. Didn’t even look right, all mossy and black in the bottle. Like drinking swamp water.”
Half Blood Blues is the kind of book that on finishing makes you think: wow, this certainly leaves an impact. And I enjoyed it for its different take on the usual WWII story. I also constantly felt that despite it having an impact, I wasn’t sure if I really loved it. But it was admirable. And addictive. And very well executed. I’m just not sure if it will end up on my favourite reads from 2012 list.
Other Opinions: Buried in Print, Jules’ Book Reviews, Winstonsdad’s Blog, The Mookse and the Gripes, Sasquatch Radio, Farm Lane Books, Lizzy’s Literary Life, Hooked on Books, Lucybird’s Book Blog, Reading Matters, Good Books and A Cup of Tea, Caribousmom, Both Eyes Book Blog, Lindy Reads and Reviews, bibliosue.
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