Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
Picador USA • $15 • ISBN 9781250012708
Published February 28, 2012
Half-Blood Blues has already received quite a bit of attention. It was a finalist for the 2011 Man Booker and the winner of the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize (Canada’s most distinguished literary award).
It alternates between Paris and Berlin, in 1939-40 and 1992. When jazz is banned by the Nazis, The Hot-Time Swingers high-tail it to the city of lights. There, Afro-German trumpeter Hieronymus Falk is arrested by the Gestapo and never heard from again. The only witness to that night is Hot-Time upright bassist Sid Griffiths. Fifty years later, a movie is made about now-legendary Falk, and at its Berlin premiere, Sid is forced to reveal the story he kept to himself for five decades.
Perhaps the book’s greatest strength is the way Edugyan moves between Sid’s 1940 and 1992 narration. One is young and hot and hungry, the other addled and losing touch with reality from age and years of trying to forget. I don’t often enjoy first-person narratives as much as I did Sid’s.
The story interested me, but the writing is what had me hooked. Edugyan’s prose is smooth and tough and completely atmospheric. The following is an excerpt from Sid’s arrival in Berlin in 1992 (Chip is another former Hot-Timer):
A weird feeling rose up in me. Last I seen Unter den Linden, they torn out all them linden trees that gave the boulevard its name, tossed up white columns in their place, sanded the pavement so their damn jack-boots wouldn’t slip.
All that was gone like it ain’t never been. I got a shock of recognition, of half-recognition, and heaven knows why but I recalled the night I seen my ma’s body laid out in her coffin. As I leaned low over her, her features seemed the same, arranged in familiar calm, but there was a trace of something not her, a watermark left by the undertaker. A whimsy to her lips, maybe. As if in dying she’d learned a whole new kind of irony, a contempt for what she’d left behind.
“This ain’t our Berlin, Sid,” said Chip.
I swallowed. Seemed like my damn voice wasn’t working right.
Chip put his hand on my shoulder. “It’s the years, brother. They wreck everything. For real.”
I nodded. “It’s lost something. I bet ain’t nobody even remember what it was.”
“Except us, brother. Except you and me.”
I said nothing.
Chip leaned back. “That’s what this weekend about, Sid.”
I sort of half turned in my seat to look at Chip where he sat, his big hands pressed between his thighs, his sweet black suit utterly un-rumpled. “You keep on talking,” I said. “You keep on trying to sell me something.”
Half-Blood Blues is out on the 28th! Will it make your TBR list?