9th Jun 2011
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
Esi Edugyan’s first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, drew comparisons to early VS Naipaul with its “fine writing, subtle characterisation and convincing portrayal of place and period.” These qualities are abundant in Half Blood Blues, a powerful and atmospheric novel tracing the lives of a group of young men and the burden of secrets that they carry.
We first meet this motley crew in Paris in 1940, where they are trying to cut a record in a makeshift studio whilst the wartime curfew keeps the streets outside empty. There’s Hieronymous ‘Hiero’ Falk, a skinny kid notable for being a horn player who can impress even old Louis Armstrong and for being a black, German boy at the outbreak of war; Chip, a wise-cracking drummer whose intentions are not always clear; Delilah, a strong woman trying to hold the group together and who, thankfully, is more than just a romantic interest; and Sid, the narrator, and heart and soul of the novel.
The novel hinges on two main events – the arrest and disappearance of Hiero in Paris, 1940, and a trip made by Chip and Sid to Berlin fifty years later to attend a Hieronymous Falk retrospective. Now old men, Sid and Chip arrive in a much-changed Berlin, the journey and festival stirring up old loyalties and grudges. A letter that Chip has received forces Sid to remember the day Hiero was arrested, and a secret he has harboured for years.
As the novel weaves back and forth between Berlin in 1939, the fall of Paris in 1940, and Berlin in 1996, we meet other characters who are key in the mysterious narrative that unfolds.
Edugyan’s writing is evocative and rhythmic – you can smell the stale smoke, the sweat-stained clothes and acrid booze; can hear the music sounding in the night; and you feel the fear of these men huddled in the dark as the boots of German soldiers echo off the pavement outside. She effectively captures the colloquialisms of the jazz age and the historical backdrop of the Second World War, presenting the reader with a gripping and moving personal journey – from the camaraderie and rivalries of young men, to the guilt, bitterness and longings of old men long separated by geography and experience.
Half Blood Blues is published by Serpent’s Tail and is available on Amazon for £6.15, or to pre-order on Kindle for £8.79.
It will also be the BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime between 27th June and 1st July.
Recommended for: people who like to read historical fiction whilst supping whiskey in an underground blues bar…
Other recommended reading: Mezz Mezzrow’s autobiography, Really The Blues, first published in 1946 and a unique insight into the blues scene of the 1920s; Beatrice Colin’s The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite for wartime Germany with a cabaret swing; Esi Edugyan’s acclaimed first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne.
For some live blues and storytelling, don’t forget to come along to For Books’ Sake presents Books and Blues in London on 19th June!