Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

Half-Blood Blues

by Esi Edugyan

The second novel from Victoria’s Esi Edugyan finds the writer not only at the top of her game, but utterly transcending even the high expectations created by her first novel, 2004’s The Second Life of Samuel Tyne. Half-Blood Blues is the sort of ballsy, brave, explosive novel we see too rarely, and have been conditioned not to hope for.

The novel interweaves two chronologically distinct storylines, both revolving around journeyman jazz bassist Sidney “Sid” Griffiths. The first narrative strand is set in Berlin and Paris in 1940. Forced to flee Germany, and drawn by a vague offer to record with Louis Armstrong, Griffiths and his bandmates – including drummer Chip Jones and trumpet virtuoso Hieronymus “Hiero” Falk – escape to Paris, where they discover a world succumbing to the racial hatred and Nazi power they thought they had left behind. Their lives are overtaken by squalor, constant fear, and thin hopes for escape. Hiero, a mixed-race German citizen, is arrested by the Nazis and lost to history, save for a few scattered recordings that have engendered, over the decades, a significant cult following.

The second narrative is set in 1992. It follows Sid and Chip as they journey back to Europe in search of their lost bandmate, hoping to come to peace with the past. Chip has publicly accused Sid of complicity in Hiero’s arrest; the accusation, and their search, provokes a re-examination of events more than a half-century old.

As befits a novel about music, Half-Blood Blues is a stylistic delight. Sequences set in the 1940s capture a rhythmic patois, while sequences set in the 1990s employ a considerably more formal, though richly inflected, voice.

The novel is far more than an exercise in style, however. It is a quintessentially human story, rich in well-drawn characters, primal emotional conflict, and a battered, flawed camaraderie. It is an exploration of the impact of history on individuals, of how moments of grace get lost in a world of hatred, how fear imperils any sense of dignity, and how friendships can form between the most disparate people. It is a stunning, powerful read, a compelling story brilliantly told, and well-deserving of its inclusion on both the Man Booker Prize shortlist and this country’s own Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist.