Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan. Serpent’s Tail 2011.
Sid and Chip grew up together in Baltimore. It was Chip who discovered jazz and introduced Sid to the joy of making music. Chip played the drums while Sid took on the bass. As young men, they settle into the backroom jazz life of Berlin, where they can live more freely than American black men. In Berlin, they are part of a talented group of players. There’s Paul, the Jewish piano player, and Fritz on alto sax, all of them working in Ernst’s club, the Hound. But most of all, there’s the kid, Hieronymus Falk, who can blow his horn like a little Louis Armstrong. It’s the kid who attracts the attention of Delilah Brown, an acquaintance of Louis. Trouble finds Chip and Sid and all the band members with the rise of the Nazis.
Half Blood Blues is Sid’s story. He tells of events in the opening years of World War II as the band breaks up and Sid and Chip and Hiero and Delilah escape from Berlin to Paris. Their relief at reaching Paris is short lived as the Nazis invade France and they scramble again to get their papers in order and leave the country. In these final nervewracking days Sid commits an act of betrayal that will haunt him for the rest of his life.
The story is told in two parts. Interspersed with the events of 1939 and 1940 is Sid’s story of his return to Berlin with Chip in 1992 to attend a commemorative ceremony for Hieronymus Falk. Now an old man, Sid returns with trepidation only at Chip’s urging. Will he find some closure and forgiveness after all these years?
I struggled a bit with the talk of jazz and horns and licorice sticks and found the vernacular language used in Half Blood Blues wearing to read. It took me a while to settle into this book. I was more than half way through before I really began to sympathize with Sid and I found the act of betrayal that the story revolves around unconvincing.
The strength of Half Blood Blues lies in the way it vividly evokes the terror of living through fearsome events. The scene of thousands of Parisians trying to escape the city by any means possible, crushing into the train station, pulsing down the main artery leaving the city, is especially brilliant. As the story moves from the war years to the present, and you learn of the fates of the various band members, it serves as a reminder of the way in which World War II changed the course of the lives of an entire generation. My own father came to Canada with the RAF, to a place he surely wouldn’t have moved to otherwise. After the war he stayed on, and here I am!
Half Blood Bllues was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Man Booker Prize, and is the 2011 winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize.