Esi Edugyan follows up The Second Life of Samuel Tyne with her Man Booker-nominated Half Blood Blues, giving an account of the hardships Afro-Germans suffered during war-time Berlin.
The novel follows Sid Griffiths and his personal journey through his conscience back to locate his old band member, an Afro-German trumpet-player called Hieronymous “Heiro” Falk. Irrationality and jealousy prevail, as Sid learns that the love old flame Delilah once had for him grows for the “kid,” Hiero. Sid’s senseless actions of hiding Hiero’s visa, along with their “degenerate” jazz music, leads to the 20-year-old Hiero’s arrest in Paris in 1939, and thus Sid’s self-loathing. Sid, the only character that knows the truth, omits all knowledge of this until 50 years later. He and Chip Jones embark on a relationship-straining journey to visit Hiero, dwelling on the past and chiselling away at Sid’s conscience.
Sid Griffiths is comparably weak, which the reader understands through Delilah. The developed and more interesting character lies in Hiero, making it possible for the reader to lose interest in the novel despite its unusual narrative. Despite the interesting political context – Berlin and Paris in 1939 and 1992 – the author does not relish in this climate. There was certainly room here for Edugyan to make the settings more intrinsic to the plot. The musical setting and sub-text within this political climate does ensure that the author refrains from infringing on political novels of the past, but as jazz musicians it is surprising that the setting is not more apparent.
Edugyan effectively places the reader in a vivid setting, using a casual, conversational, yet descriptive tone throughout this novel. Vivid and colloquial, it is understandable why Half Blood Blues has been long-listed for the prestigious award. The music references of Louis Armstrong, “Satchmo” or “Pops,” are also indicative of the period in which this story is set, as Armstrong took off from the States to head to Europe in the 1930s.
Edugyan’s imagery is attractively pungent, particularly in her description of the music, objectifying the medium. This technique successfully turns an elite music genre into something the reader can enjoy, understand and access. A story that does not encapsulate the controversial settings or intrinsic characters, Half Blood Blues is a fantastic read.