Saturday, 17 October 2015

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought:
It had never occurred to me – though I expect it should have done – that among the artists that flocked to Paris and Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s were many Black American jazz musicians who were unable to play to white audiences back home. Nor did I know that when the border between France and Germany in Alsace Lorraine was shifted once again following the Treaty of Versailles, the French sent in, not French soldiers, but soldiers from their colony in Senegal, some of whom inevitably started relationship with local women, resulting in mixed-race children – or ‘Mischling’.

Once the Nazis came to power in 1933, both groups found themselves in a perilous situation. Half Blood Blues is told through the eyes of Sid – a Black jazz bassist from Baltimore - and is primarily about Hiero, a young Mischling who may just be the best jazz trumpeter since Louis Armstrong.

Sid is now an old man. As he returns to Berlin to honour Hiero, whose music is being rediscovered by a new generation, he reluctantly recalls what happened as their group of musicians fled from Berlin to Paris, trying to stay ahead of the Nazis advance. What really became of Hiero, and what part did Sid play in his fate?

Canadian writer, Esi Edugyan, delivers a narrator whose voice is pitch perfect (five seasons of watching The Wire making it relatively easy to conjure the Baltimore accent in my head...)

Half Blood Blues explores notions of guilt, responsibility and sexual and artistic jealousy. It also unravels a little known aspect of a well-worn story, and one that deserves to be better understood.

A beautifully written book and one I will return to.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Cowards by Josef Škvorecký, 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

Avoid if you dislike: WWII stories, stories about musicians

Perfect Accompaniment: Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and Dizzy Gillespie

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Available on Amazon

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