Half-Blood Blues

Michael Hayward

The writer Esi Edugyan must be thrilled with the response to her second novel, Half-Blood Blues (Thomas Allen)—winner of the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Governor General’s Literary Award and Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Half-Blood Blues tells the story of a group of jazz musicians living in Berlin, and later in Paris, in 1939. The youngest of them, and the central figure of the novel, is Hiero: twenty years old, a German citizen, black. Hiero is a trumpet player gifted enough for Louis Armstrong (who gets a cameo appearance in the Paris section) to nickname him “Little Louis,” and to insist that Hiero not change a thing about his trumpet playing: “You the stuff. You perfect.” Jazz musicians—particularly black jazz musicians—were one of many groups targeted by the Nazis as they rose to power, and a pivotal moment in Blues comes when Hiero disappears after being taken into custody. However, the main narrative tension in Half-Blood Blues comes not from the Nazis but from internal jealousies that have arisen in the group itself. The novel is recounted in the slang-laced voice of Sid Griffiths, the group’s expatriate African-American bass player, and this vivid narrative voice is the real strength of Half-Blood Blues. Interleaved with events set in the late 1930s are sections set in Berlin in 1992, as Sid is finally forced to deal with his less-than-noble actions of half a century before.

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