If there is one thing that Esi Edugyan has achieved with Half Blood Blues, other than the Booker Longlist nomination, it is the ability to create a strong bond between reader and cast just by using her skill with characterisation. By the final page of the novel I was hanging on every word that Edugyan wrote, purely because I felt close to the central characters.
Half Blood Blues is a suspenseful novel based on the events that occurred in the opening stages of the Second World War. Throughout Germany Afro-German citizens were becoming stateless and their lives were in tatters. The novel revolves around one such citizen, Hieronymous Falk, or Hiero as we come to know him. Hiero is a killer horn player, the next Louis Armstrong, so says Louis Armstrong himself.
In the opening pages Hiero is taken by the Nazis as he visits a café with our narrator, Sid. Hiero doesn’t have any papers on him to prevent his journey to a concentration camp and Sid stands by and watches as his friend and bandmate is pulled from life itself. Sid narrates the story from his present day in 1992. Following the making of a documentary about Hiero that showed what an amazing musician he was (the world believing that Hiero died in the concentration camp or shortly after the war), Sid and another member of the band begin a journey to Poland after a letter arrives, apparently from Hiero himself.
What transpires is a story of nostalgia, betrayal, sadness and friendship. But it’s the suspense that draws you in. After a night in the city, the band is journeying home and is split up in the streets. What follows is a fight with the Nazis where, without spoiling anything, a certain member of the party gets into more trouble than anyone expected. This leads them into hiding and much like any story set with our cast “on the run” we read as they narrowly escape various predicaments.
The suspense also runs through the bandmates friendship with each other as Sid falls for Delilah, close friend of Louis Armstrong. We are however told that Hiero is constantly making eyes at her and Delilah seems to reciprocate. This causes Sid to become insanely jealous of not just Hiero and Delilah, but Hiero’s natural talent on the trumpet.
However, despite the suspense and the cast, something feels lacking. As Sid narrates we feel incredibly close to his emotions which heighten our bond with him and the band and what they often go through is awful. But, sometimes you feel that Edugyan has placed so much on Sid’s inner turmoil that the ramifications of his actions never really jump off of the page. This takes away from the world around them in which Jews and Afro-Germans were living in constant fear and I’m sure had more emphasis been put on that section of the story, the novel would have felt more whole and delivered much more of a punch.
This doesn’t take away from the fact that the book deserves its place on the Booker Longlist and I hung off of every word. The writing is superb and Edugyan’s ability to write a good story about normal people in desperate times is wonderful. It’s worth reading, if only to experience the connection that you will feel with the cast she has created.
Half Blood Blues is available now and is featured on the 2011 Booker Prize Longlist