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by Esi Edugyan
Toronto: Thomas Allen, 2011
311 pp., $24.95
There are so many wonderful things to say about Esi Edugyan’s second novel, which is also a recent Giller prizewinner. Half-Blood Blues is the story of jazz bassist, Sidney Griffiths’ experiences of Berlin and Paris as World War II begins to devour Europe. He relates this story over 50 years later, as he makes an uncertain return overseas to face the events and friends he left behind when he finally escaped an abandoned Paris to return to his hometown, Baltimore. Amid the chaos of impending war and the brutal realities facing black foreigners and residents in both Germany and France, Griffiths and his band mates find the last slices of survival (such as it is) by delving deep inside their forced dependencies on each other, and on their music.
Edugyan’s masterful storytelling brings to life the painful intricacies of trying to eke out a living in a city on the verge of war, and in so doing Half-Blood Blues becomes a vibrant study of vulnerability and betrayal, of the many sharp and bony angles of love. Though interested in these painful sides of love, the reading experience itself is entirely loving; Edugyan fills every available space with the powerful life around her characters, keeping us in the world when the world is the place to be, and granting us reprieve inside of Griffiths’ mind when the fictional world becomes all too silent. As readers we are never left alone, and in some ways, Edugyan enacts an extra kindness by therefore almost never leaving her characters entirely alone. If we yearn for more out of every scene and every encounter, it is only because the writing is so rich and beautifully done and not because Edugyan denies the reader. Make no mistake: the world Griffiths explores is a hard one, and he is himself hard, and sometimes difficult to love – as we all sometimes are. And Edugyan by no means shies away from the difficulty around these lives. It is a credit to her mastery that the trials and hard times which the reader would otherwise look away from take on a quality of depth that seems to command our compassionate attention. Half-Blood Blues, then, is a worthy reading experience as much as it is an important period piece – not only just for its historical significance – that has not yet been reenacted till now.
The narrative moves almost seamlessly from the past to the present, with the occasional disorienting surfacing in new places, in new relations, without explicit indication. Rather than seeming accidental though, these moments of disorientation mimic the uncertainty and upheaval the characters experience each time they step out onto the city’s streets, wondering which of their inherited, cultural or social characteristics makes them the enemy today. Though the rather familiar sound of jazz emanates from the fiber of this book, its historical setting might be exclusionary for the present-day reader. Nevertheless, that possible alienation is arrested by an evocative narrative, which breathes life into a world that, though distant, becomes inclusive for the uninitiated. Edugyan’s control is so gentle and natural that the language of Half-Blood Blues slips around the reader like a lover, as if the story is whispered into your ear. Some scenes though are so vibrantly wrought that they explode from an aural world into a visual one. So, while you don’t have to know jazz to feel like Half-Blood Blues is speaking to you, I’m sure that those with more musical ears than I do get some extra pleasure out of Esugyan’s textured writing.
In short, this is a novel for everyone. Half Blood Blues is a work that deserves attention, and the reading of which everyone will thank himself or herself for experiencing.
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