Monday, August 22, 2011

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Half Blood Blues was kindly sent to me by Serpent's Tail after it was longlisted for this years Booker. A 2nd novel by a Canadian writer, you can see why it appealed to publisher, and, to a lesser extent, Booker judges: telling a somewhat unusual story, that of an American Jazz band caught up in first Berlin, and then Paris at the outbreak of World War II. The twist in the tail is that their trumpeter, Hieronymous Falk, is a young black German, and, as the one surviving record of the group - "Half Blood Blues" - shows, was a unique talent.

Edugyan begins, not with the band in Berlin, but in Paris, as they make their final flee from the Nazis, following that auspicious recording. Flash forward half a century and Sid and Chip, the two survivors of the band, are called to Germany for a documentary about this legendary session. All is not as it seems, and our narrator, bassist, Sidney, is both uncomfortable about the return and drawn - as he always has been - by the insistent Chip. He was dragged into a brothel aged 13, by his more talented rhythm mate, and here he is, an old man, being dragged across the Atlantic, to face, as only Sid knows, the truth about the past. For "Half Blood Blues" is a book about secrets and betrayal. But like "The Kite Runner," "The Gathering" or "Atonement," the reader is kept waiting for the truth. A common enough contemporary trope, in some ways, this gives "Half Blood Blues" the air of a shaggy dog story. That Heironymous has somehow survived the Holocaust, creates a second quest story - as, following the revelations in Berlin - Chip and Sidney hunt him down in Poland. Given the momentous times they lived through, three old pals burying the hatchet seems a slight return.

The Booker, in not allowing American novels, has had a bit of a penchant for American-style novels the last few years, and this, like "Vernon God Little" or "Keepers of the Truth" is American to the core. Despite plenty of research, the story seems to lack veracity - partly because the act of ventroquilism that Edugyan gives us with Sidney is that of an old man telling stories on the stoop, never quite getting to the point; and partly because we are seeing this through time and memory. Music is notoriously hard to write about, and Edugyan does a good job of it, but what she gains in matching Sidney's jive with the spirit of her musicians, she loses through the somewhat playful way that the jazz band makes its way from the heart of the nightmare to safety. Its not just that Sidney is an unreliable narrator, he comes across as an unreliable witness. Not that all books about that period have to be morality tales - yet there seems something a little casual about this particular story of betrayal, given the events happening all about them. Also, Sidney's obfuscations make it a somewhat frustrating read. I'm remembered of Allan Gurganus's similarly obfuscatory "The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All". Alone, Sidney's narrative isn't quite entertaining enough to make up for its shagginess. There's a love story at the heart of this as well, but Sidney's love for singer Delilah, and the latter's protectiveness of the young, vulnerable Hieronymous doesn't quite do it for me. Is it just sex? Or is it something more? With Hiero's voice being silenced throughout most of the narrative (though he gets given voice when it suits the author), he seems a mute character, brought alive by a music that, of course, we never get to hear.

Yet as I was about to give up on the book's longeurs, it begins to come alive. The rush from Berlin to Hamburg to Paris, and then the panic as they then have to arrange an escape to America (a near impossibility for the German-African Hieronymous) is truly gripping, Sidney's digressions notwithstanding. Here the backwards looking structure makes sense, for we know that they survived, and that the meeting with Hieronymous will be the climax of the book. The love and rivalry between these three men has sustained them all in different ways through the years.

I'd be surprised if it makes it beyond the Booker longlist, as its a somewhat frustrating read, and much too long in its early part, yet if we take it for what it is, both an old man's picaresque back into his regrettable past, and a not inauthentic paeon for a lost music, it works well enough on those terms.

For another point of view Bernadine Evaristo reviews it in the Guardian here.

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