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Sid and his friend Chip are revisiting their youth, more than 50 years ago. They were jazz musicians, living and working in Berlin and Paris, until they had to escape Nazi occupied Paris in 1940 to return to Baltimore. Now it is 1992, and all the others they worked with are long since dead. They have just been involved in a documentary about their experiences, and are about to return to Germany (soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall) for a jazz festival in memory of the great Hiero Falk. Hieronymus Falk was a young black German musician with an exceptional musical talent, the star of their band, the Hot-Time Swingers. He was picked up by 'the Boots' as Sid refers to the Germans, in Paris in 1940, and disappeared into a concentration camp, then they heard he was released but died in 1948.
Just before the trip, Chip comes round to see Sid with some startling, shocking news. Hiero is alive and has written asking them to visit him in northern Poland. The trip is not a happy experience - Sid is shocked by the changes in Berlin, but that is nothing to his outrage and anger when he sees the finished documentary for the first time. Chip has some harsh views of what Sid did all those years ago and why. He blames Sid for betraying Hiero. Sid also blames himself, but not for the same reasons. Sid thinks he wants to fly home but he can't help himself, and is somehow compelled to go along with Sid's reunion plan.
This is the framework for Sid's story. I thought it was an interesting storyline but two things really stood out in this novel for me.
One is Edugyan's powerful portrayal of the band's final days in Paris. She imagines fear incredibly well - the impossible attempts to escape the city ahead of the Germans, and then a period in hiding waiting for visas which will allow the remaining members of the band to escape. (One chose to stay behind in Germany, and another, a German Jew, was arrested).
The other is the characterisation. The whole story is told through the eyes of Sid, who often seems very selfish and not very likeable, but can someone so perceptive about others really be all bad? Sid and Chip have been childhood friends, and were attracted to Germany as were many other American musicians by the lively and profitable music scene of Weimar Germany, offering opportunities denied to them at home by segregation and racial prejudice. He is cynical and embittered, but maybe there is more to this man underneath.
When Sid and Chip first meet, Chip takes Sid to meet his grandmother so he can trick her into giving him more sweets, and he is a charming opportunist, but also a more talented musician than Sid. There are so many scenes in this book which made me wonder how these two men have remained friends all these years, I'm still thinking about it.
Hiero is perhaps the most shadowy of the major characters in the story, as our perceptions are shaped by the memories of an old man who may not always be totally reliable. His story made me think I would like to know more about the experiences of black Germans at this time. He was born and brought up in Germany but his father was a black American soldier, so he would have been a visible reminder of a period of defeat for Germany, another reason for the Nazi regime and its soldiers to hate him.
Sid has two reasons to be jealous of Hiero - one is his superior musical ability, which took the band to Paris to play and record with Louis Armstrong (who makes several appearances in the novel), and the other is Delilah, who works with Armstrong and makes the initial contact, who has a brief affair with Sid but seems to have something with Hiero which Sid doesn't understand except that he doesn't like it. Although she is described through Sid's eyes, even Delilah is a convincing, multidimensional character, perhaps the strongest in the book other than Sid himself.
Finally, precisely because the characters seem so real, I'm still thinking about all the questions that come up in the story, and some are answered more fully than others.
This review originally appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk.
I read this just before the Man Booker Prize longlist was announced, including Half Blood Blues, which made it to the six book shortlist, although the prize went to a more obviously literary work, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. (So I was not reading this as a literary prize contender, just a novel with ). I was surprised by the inclusion of Edugyan among several less well known writers on the longlist but I was pleased to see it on the shortlist but did not expect it to win.
Half Blood Blues is currently £10.99 RRP, but because of the shortlist it is available much cheaper, eg £5.71 at Amazon in trade paperback, or £4.79 for Kindle.
May 2012: It's now also been shortlisted for the Orange Prize.