Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis
Category: Literary Fiction
Format: Hardcover, 304 pages
Publisher: Thomas Allen Publishers
Pub Date: August 25, 2011
Winner of the 2012 Giller Prize
I could say I finished this “gem” of a book, but to call it that would do it an injustice. This jazzy, soulful novel isn’t a gem; it’s a whole lot of gems in a truckload—a mine. Hell, I wept at key parts (that if you’ve read it, will know exactly which parts I’m referring to) and I’m no crying type…well, not really.
I usually come at a book as a ruthless editor and a fair, but brutally honest, sometimes brash reviewer. But this Giller beauty has earned every penny and glory worth its acclaimed prize.It’s a little rough at the beginning, and by that, I don’t mean poor in writing, but brittle in narrative that forces you as the reader to realize how you read, think, and speak.
The dialogue, like the story, grows on you until our very thoughts mimic its language and tone. I was easily and unnoticeably transported to pre-war Berlin, but not just any Berlin, but its underbelly: its hot spots, its seedy bars, its jazz-crooning, smooth-wiling ways. Its nightlife—no, the potency of its life—its jazz as a tangible, organic thing.
While reading, I wished I could literally “hear” the music being played, the essence of it reverberating off the pages. As the band of brothers, these soulful jazz creators, worshipped Louis Armstrong, jazz, and the life of jazz itself, I, too, became infatuated with its dinginess, its raw energy, its powerful hypnosis on the band, their listeners, and on the readers of the novel.
The heart of “real” jazz seemed to be expressed as an impromptu blending, a magic that cannot be duplicated, or created by imitation, perfection, or musical scores—but could be invoked by the players themselves in their individual talent, their feel and unit as a group, and their own layers of interpretation and surprise.
Jazz, the music, a fundamental thread in the book, by that definition, spoke of the players’ unstructured, chaotic, and unexpected lives.
Like the band of men, Paul, Fritz, Sid, Chip, Hiero Falk—the joy, melancholy, suffering, pain, and redemption they experience in the life force of the music they play and vice versa.
What is achingly beautiful about this book is how interconnected the characters are to jazz, the music, jazz, the life, their compulsion for it, their gifts in creating it, their arduous love and respect towards it—and to each other.
But, it’s not just about jazz. It’s also a book about territory, war, “racial cleansing.” The music, too, is an ostracized, rebellious sibling to its classical counterparts that goes under attack. The very freedom of creativity, art, music, and brotherhood is under fire.
But, even through distinct and separate fates, the men are bonded by their love and passion for the music they create. It’s alive in them.
The book is self-prophetic in saying,
“Blues…blues wasn’t ever bout the cords.” p. 275
Half-Blood Blues will croon you into empathy for a group of men who has had to survive their haunted pasts, the cruelty of a mad-made war, the betrayal and endurance of their friends, and the weaknesses and strengths of their own natural talent.