I read “Half-Blood Blues” about a year ago and recalled enjoying it then. So I was only too happy to hear it was nominated as a Canada Reads 2014 book since it was another excuse to read it again. The scenes set in Paris made me even more excited for my upcoming trip to the city of love, and made me dream of cafe au lait and warm croissants in cafes as described in the book. “Half Blood Blues” is from the point of view of Sid, an American bass jazz player who was in Europe at the beginning of WW2. He returns to Germany decades later for a festival in honour of his deceased bandmate, Hiero; and discovers from his old friend, Chip, that Hiero is alive in Poland. This discovery leads Sid to reminisce on his days as a bass player in Europe, and his guilt in Hiero’s arrest and internment at a concentration camp.
This book delves deep into complicated characters and delicately weaves the stories of war, jazz, race, and love into a stunning narrative. I was surprised to hear Esi Edugyan on The Next Chapter saying she does not play an instrument and has little knowledge of music. She describes the feel of music so amazingly that it seems that music must run through her every vein in order for her to understand the movement of jazz so completely. For example, when Armstrong begins playing his trumpet, she writes: “he just trilled in a breezy, casual way, like he giving some dame a second glance in the street without breaking stride” (p.231). For a music lover like me, I felt the jazz descriptions tug on my heart strings.
And then wrapped up in all this music and jazz slang speak is the very heavy reality of war and the racist rhetoric of Germany sweeping throughout Europe. The pain of knowing from the beginning of the book that Hiero is arrested right in front of Sid because he is a black German denied citizenship due to his racial ancestry. This scene scratches at the surface revealing all of the undercurrent issues of race during that era. For example, Sid himself is black but so light-skinned that he can get by as white. He left America because of the segregation of blacks from society and ended up a few years later in a country with even worse racial limits, where he watches Hiero, his friend and rival and bandmate, get arrested for being black.
This book is wonderfully written, and even though I wish Esi had explored the final scene between Hiero and Sid a bit more, I like that she left the book with the tinge of forgiveness and renewed friendship. Definitely read this book!
5/5 bacon strips