The downside of being an avid reader is that you can go through a great deal of books without really connecting to one. It’s not that you’re jaded, just that at a certain point it takes more to really impress you. There are, after all, only so many stories a person can tell, so plots become cliched, characters become familiar. But every once in a while a voice comes along that makes you sit up and pay attention. A voice that takes familiar notions and makes them feel fresh–alive. It sends a shiver down your spine when it happens. That is exactly what happened to me when I picked up Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues–right from the first page, when she wrote “we lay exhausted in the flat, sheets nailed over the windows. The sunrise so fierce it seeped through the gaps, dropped like cloth on our skin. Couple hours before, we was playing in some back-alley studio, trying to cut a record. A grim little room, more like a closet of ghosts than any joint for music, the cracked heaters lisping steam, empty bottles rolling all over the warped floor.”
If I had to describe Half-Blood Blues very quickly I’d say that it’s like Cabaret crossed with Amadeus with a dash of Atonement, but that wouldn’t exactly do it justice. The plot follows the Hot-Time Swingers: jazz musicians who were on the brink of greatness until World War II broke out and shattered their lives forever. First we have Sid Griffiths, our narrator, whose passion for music fills every pore on his body (on his first experience hearing jazz in a speakeasy: “I was in love. Pure and simple. This place, with its stink of sweat and medicine and perfume; these folks, all gussied up never mind the weather–this, this was life to me.”). His passion leads him and his childhood friend Chip away from Baltimore and all the way to Germany, where there’s a great deal of excitement about the burgeoning jazz scene. They have to go a little underground once the Nazis come to power, but leaving would be impossible to Sid. Especially after they hook up with Hieronymous “Hiero” Falk, a young prodigy who both inspires and infuriates Sid with his natural talent. Sid advocates for the kid but can’t help but undermine him in increasingly less subtle ways, acting as something of a Salieri to Hiero’s Amadeus. “I admit it,” Sid notes. “He got genius in spades. Cut him in half, he still worth three of me, It ain’t fair. It ain’t fair that I struggle and struggle to sound just second-rate, and the damn kid just wake up, spit through his horn, and it sing like nightingales. It ain’t fair. Gifts is divided so damn unevenly.” They eventually escape to Paris with the help of the haunting jazz singer Delilah, and while this should have been their saving grace, it ends up being their downfall.
But this is only half of the story. The other half takes place in 1992, when Sid and Chip are invited back to Berlin to attend the premier of a documentary honoring the memory of Hiero, who was arrested by the Gestapo after the Nazis occupied France, and never seen again (this is no spoiler, by the way. It happens in the first chapter, and the narrative goes back and forth between WWII and 1992 to flesh out the details). The journey to Berlin stirs intense feelings of pain and guilt in Sid, but the truth is that these emotions have never been unfamiliar to him in the decades since Hiero vanished. Sid may be the narrator, but it is Hiero who drives the plot, whose spectral presence haunts every page.
It’s a story of passion, jealousy, and betrayal, and while these elements feel familiar (and at times predictable), it is impossible not to fall under Edugyan’s spell. Her writing is beautiful, and the way she weaves all of the plot elements together belies the incredible craftsmanship it must have taken to make it all feel so organic. Sid is an incredibly contradictory character; he says ” I guess folk just ain’t built to be faithful to nothing, not even to pain. Not even when it their own,” but the way he has lived his life shows that he has never been able to forget the hurts inflicted on him by Hiero and Delilah, let alone the pain he caused them. Sid has lived with this ache but he is incapable of confronting it directly. I don’t think it is unfair to say that when he travels back to Berlin he is hoping to finally find some form of release from his memories. So despite these contradictions Sid never feels false; on the contrary, the fact that he is at odds with himself is the very thing that brings him to vibrant life. Edugyan even pulls off one of my most common gripes when she briefly introduces Louis Armstrong as a character. Now, I generally roll my eyes when an author inserts a real person into a historical novel, but that’s because most writers do it in the most clumsy, contrived manner possible. Not so with Edugyan. Armstrong’s place in the story feels natural, organic. She doesn’t just put him there for kicks–she makes him an integral force in the plot.
I hadn’t so thoroughly enjoyed a novel this much since I read The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. last summer. Falling under a book’s spell is a thrilling experience, and I sincerely hope that you enjoy Half-Blood Blues as much as I did.