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Half-Blood Blues ~ Reviewed by Annie Vigna

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Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

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Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
Thomas Allen Publishers (2011)
ISBN 9780887627415

Reviewed by Annie Vigna

Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues is arranged in six chapters, non-sequential, as follows: I Paris 1940; II Berlin 1992; III Berlin 1939; IV Berlin 1992; V Paris 1939; and VI Poland 1991. Beautifully written in the vernacular of Black jazz musicians, it is a story of tight friendships among a marginalized group trying to immortalize their sound on vinyl before disbursing, possibly forever.  It is a story of intense loyalty and treachery; and of wretched regret, forgiveness and reconciliation; of dark and light; light and dark.

Hiero and his little band of jazz musicians is outrunning World War Two from Berlin to Paris just in time for the German occupation of France.

[Hieronymous Falk] was a Mischling, a half-breed, but so dark no soul ever like to guess his mama a white Rhinelander.  Hell, his skin glistened like pure oil.  But he German-born, sure.  And if his face wasn’t of the Fatherland, just bout everything else bout him rooted him there right good.  And add to this the fact that he didn’t have no identity papers right now – well, let’s just say wasn’t no cakewalk for him. (8-9)

Sid, the narrator of this novel, was American, “and so light-skinned folks often took me for white” (9)  Edugyan uses this first person narrative faultlessly, allowing his perspective to pervade.  Only direct dialogues skew his point of view. And the dialogues are profuse and perfect in pitch and tone.  The conflict initiated by Sid in the first chapter keeps the reader hooked until the final pages, the tension never easing.So sure of her research and so conversant of the jazz scene is this author that she includes the inimitable Louis Armstrong jamming with these fully realized characters—Chip on the drums, Sid on the bass guitar, and Hiero on the trumpet.  Armstrong is so impressed with Hiero’s talent, he refers to him as “Little maestro”, “Little Louis.”  But he rejects Sid’s nervous, faulty playing.  And that sets off Sid’s vendetta against Hiero, a vendetta as degenerate as the barbaric ideology of a totalitarian system.

Even the love of the sexy Delilah (Lilah)isn’t enough for Sid, not when he can manipulate time and events to secure his own spot in perpetuity.  At what cost?

Half-Blood Blues gives the reader a story of a group of jazz musicians wanting nothing but to play.  They are ragged, hungry, and feeling illegitimate and unceasingly vulnerable against the backdrop of the German invasion.

Edugyan’s expository of the war scenes, vivid and beautifully crafted, show restraint.  She describes the grey skies, the plumes of smoke, the marching soldiers, the crowds crushing to leave, the desolation in the buildings and streets, the food rations, the change in people from friendly and accommodating to paranoid, just needing to survive.

She illustrates how the darkness provides shelter and safety, the light exposing, interrogating. Otherwise darkened interiors, even in daylight, suddenly became unbearable with the lights turned up.  “I never known till that moment how nightmarish so much light can be.” (14)

What a rewarding read!

Esi Edugyan won the 2011 ScotiaBank Giller Prize for Half-Blood Blues.  Also by Esi Edugyan is The Second Life of Samuel Tyne.  She lives in Victoria, British Columbia.


Annie Vigna is a former bookstore owner. She lives in Calgary, Alberta.

Other reviews by Annie Vigna


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3 Comments for “Half-Blood Blues ~ Reviewed by Annie Vigna”

  1. Interesting story, but cumbersome and unfulfilling for me at its conclusion. In part the story of two black American jazz performers as well as their German co-workers whose music and performing is suppressed by the Nazis in 1939 Berlin. Forced to flee to Paris, the two are joined by a Canadian woman employed by Louis Armstrong and an African-German prodigy, Hiero Falk.

    Wonderfully written, gripping, with the enticing, at times chilling, backdrop of the pre-war years, in addition to a believable plot twist, Half-Blood Blues,like the best novels, seems too real to be envisioned. Strongly recommended.

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