2011 Shortlist – Half Blood Blues – Esi Edugyan

“What is luck but something made to run out.”
Esi Edugyan is another Canadian to make the Booker Shortlist, along with Patrick deWitt, but that’s about where the commonality ends, as “Half Blood Blues” is no noir-western.
Our story starts in Paris in 1940 with our narrator and protagonist the American bass player Sid, his best friend from youth and drummer Chip and genius black German trumpeter Hieronymous Falk, sharing a flat in the German occupied city. They are sleeping it off after a night of recording and arguing about whether to go outside to get some milk. That trip outside, where Hiero is taken into custody by the Germans (even though he is German he has no identity papers), sets our story in motion.
Flash forward to 1992 Berlin where Chip and Sid are to attend a festival celebrating Heiro’s music. They are to attend a documentary screening:
Then there was some ruined old fool up there, his dour mug peering out at us. And then I saw with shock that the fool was me.
This novel moves seamlessly between past and current events, the guilt and fear of our narrator’s story becoming more palpable as we turn each page. Our knowledge of his journey, his self belief, jealousy, ignorance grows throughout. The relationship between the three main characters becomes clearer through the historical passages, and all the secrets are slowly revealed until we literally begin to feel Sid’s own fear and dread.
Primarily a story about guilt, friendships, regrets of events long passed, and the eternal existentialist questions, which is set during the Second World War. But added threads of Germany’s treatment of jazz musicians, blacks and other minority groups during that period, brings this story to life. Throw into the mix a jazz theme which comes through in the pitch and passion of the musical passages and wholly believable conversation pieces, using period slang and male sledging and you are transported into the period every time you pick the book up.
‘You brigin that leslie up again?’ Hiero was walking all brisk with them skinny legs of his. ‘You know, every time you drink the rot you go on bout that jack.’
‘She wasn’t no leslie, brother – she was a woman. Bona fide.’
This is a worthy inclusion on the short list and if you love jazz, historical novels and books that weave real life characters and situations into a fictional tale then I would highly recommend this. Although dealing with the horrors of the Second World War this is in a completely different voice and style to “Far to Go”, another novel from the long list. An in my opinion this is a lot more engrossing and readable, but with a different tension. This is Edugyan’s second novel and as I was so impressed by this work, at some stage I will hunt down her debut “The Second Life of Samuel Tyne”.
Personally I have this book as a contender for the main gong, along with “Jamrach’s Menagerie”. I now have Julian Barnes’ “The Sense of an Ending” to read to complete my shortlist reading.
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