Like Washington Black, Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues is a mix of highs and lows. It has some pacing problems, but the main story has a lot of potential. Summary from Goodreads:
The aftermath of the fall of Paris, 1940. Hieronymus Falk, a rising star on the cabaret scene, is arrested in a cafe and never heard from again. He is twenty years old. A German citizen. And he is black.
Fifty years later, Sid, Hiero’s bandmate and the only witness that day, is going back to Berlin. Persuaded by his old friend Chip, Sid discovers there’s more to the journey than he thought when Chip shares a mysterious letter, bringing to the surface secrets buried since Hiero’s fate was settled.
In Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan weaves the horror of betrayal, the burden of loyalty and the possibility that, if you don’t tell your story, someone else might tell it for you. And they just might tell it wrong.
I included the Goodreads summary because I think it contributed to my relatively low opinion of this book. It implies a certain mystery, but there’s not much here that’s mysterious. Hiero is arrested in the first chapter and there’s a strong hint at why Sid blames himself, though it’s not made explicit until later. Hiero goes out the morning after a recording session and is arrested while Sid is in the bathroom:
I stood there, rooted to the spot.
Hieronymus, he stared down them Boots. When their hard gazes forced his away, he look at the tiled floor. He never once look in the direction of the toilets, and I understood. Hell. He, of all people, protecting me. I couldn’t let him do it.
But just then the Boots yanked wide the Coup’s door, its chain singing. Taking Hiero’s arm, they led him and the other boy out into the street. I stood there. Stood there with my hands hanging like strange weights against my thighs, my chest full of something like water. Stood there watching Hiero go. (16-17)
After Hiero’s arrest, the story jumps 50 years to 1992. We learn that the song the band recorded the night before Hiero’s arrest was discovered after the war and earned massive, international attention. Hiero, presumed dead, has become a mythic figure, comparable only to Louis Armstrong. The novel swings between the past and present, but there’s not much momentum in the flashbacks because they end in the arrest shown in the opening chapter. Some might argue this allows the reader to focus on the banter between the musicians and the lush descriptions of jazz and musical creativity, but more on that later.
No matter how stunningly written, the flashbacks feel too long because Sid, the narrator, is most interested in himself. Much of what says concerns his jealousy towards Hiero’s musical skill, or his jealousy that Delilah shows more affection to Hiero than himself. (Delilah’s interest in Hiero doesn’t seem terribly romantic, but Sid is too bitter to notice.) The 1992 scenes have much more energy because they’re not heading for a known ending. I can’t help wondering if the 1940 scenes would have been more intense if the arrest came at the end instead of the beginning—the arrest would fit better as the climax of Sid’s jealousy, instead of happening when the reader barely knows the characters.
In 1992, Chip, a friend and former bandmate, drags Sid to the premier of a documentary on their band, which forces Sid to confront the memory of Hiero’s arrest and the suspicion that everyone has always blamed him. The friendship between Chip and Sid is more nuanced than the relationships shown via flashback.
I’ve never been one to appreciate jazz, but I do appreciate Edugyan’s fluid descriptions of music that are intelligible even to non-aficionados. In this scene, Hiero is playing with Louis Armstong—the Louis Armstrong:
It was the sound of the gods, all that brass. It was the old Armstrong and the new, that mature distilled essence of a master and the boy he used to be, the boy who could make his glissandi snap like marbles, the high Cs piercing. Hiero thrown out note after note, like sunshine sliding all over the surface of a lake, and Armstrong was the water, all depth and thought, not one wasted note. Hiero, he just reaching out, seeking the shore; Armstrong stood there calling across to him. Their horns sound so naked, so blunt, you felt almost guilty listening to it, like you eavesdropping. After some minutes Chip stopped singing, left just the two golden ropes of sound to intertwine.
It was then that I finally heard it. I heard how damn brilliant the kid really was.
I hated it. (242-243)
Note the last line; Sid’s jealousy is never far away. You can see from this quote and others that Sid has a casual way of speaking. He says “see” a lot and consistently calls his bass an “axe,” using other slang throughout. His voice comes to life after a few pages (another reason I wanted to hear about more than his insecurities).
Like in Washington Black, the key scenes are so vivid that they leap from the page in a cinematic way, but they fit together haphazardly. It’s less obvious in Half-Blood Blues because there’s a fifty-year time skip, but many events are connected by a coincidence or exceedingly well-placed friend. Let’s start with Hiero’s posthumous fame: Sid hid their final recording in his bass case and it ended up with a Nazi who hid it in wall until it was found by a contractor, given to a university professor, then to a French classical musicologist who kept it in a filing cabinet until his death. From here, it was found again when his daughter brought it to another musicologist in Berlin who “after just one listen to the unlabeled disc, he declared it the rawest kind of genius.” (32)
Stranger things have happened, and given that Sid isn’t the most reliable narrator there’s a chance this story has been spruced up a bit, but it’s a fair example of a coincidence without getting into spoiler territory. Individual scenes are well crafted, but the book would be much better if the connections felt more natural.
Overall 3.5 (out of 5.0) The sharpness of the present-day sections exposes the pacing flaws in the flashbacks. The fast-slow-fast-slow tempo feels more uneven than interesting, but there are some strong moments. The music, and the energy and passion behind it, is beautifully and memorably written.