It ain’t fair. Gifts is divided so damn unevenly. Like God just left his damn sack of talents in a ditch somewhere and said, “Go help yourselves, ladies and gents.Them’s that get there first can help themselves to the biggest ones. In every other walk of life, a jack can work to get what he want. but ain’t no amount of toil going get you a lick more talent than you born with. Geniuses ain’t made, brother, they just is. and I just was not. – page 272
The talent we are raving here is Hieronymus Falk, Hiero for short, nickname kid. Hiero was a trumpeteer, making jazz music with Paul at the piano, Fritz, Charles C. Jones, nickname Chip at the drum and Sid (Sidney Roscoe Griffiths), the narrator of the story, at the Cello.
In 1940, in the aftermath of the fall of Paris, Hiero was a rising star on the cabaret scene. He is arrested in a cafe and never heard from again. He is 20-year-old. A German citizen. And he is black.
50 years later, Sid, the only witness that day Hiero was abducted. Sid is going back to Berlin, where they first met. Persuaded by his old friend Chip, Sid discovers there’s more to the journey when Chip shares a mysterious letter, bringing to the surface a dark, ugly secret which sealed Hiero’s fate.
The day I learnt of the Orange prize for fiction announces the 2012 shortlist, I was fortunate to collect Foreign Bodies, Painter of Silence and this book at one go from the Westminster Library. Browsing through which one to start first, I read a few paragraph of Half Blood Blues and felt like giving up.
We talked like mongrels, see – half German, half Baltimore bar slang. Just a few scraps of French between us. Only real language I spoke aside from English was Hoch-deutsch. But once I started messing up the words I couldn’t straighten nothing out again. – page 5
The language and period slang (noticed the grammatical errors, they are not mine!) used in the story stay true to the depiction of half mongrel as mentioned above, initially I find it difficult to follow but after awhile I got the hang of it. All because this book won the Canadian Scotiabank Giller Prize including being shortlisted for Man Booker Prize 2011, and now shortlisted for Orange Prize 2012, this book got to be good right?
So to make sure new readers do not fall into the same trap as I did, let me start off with a few basic glossary of this book:
- The Kraut - the Germans, The Boot is a Nazi soldier
- The Frog – the French (don’t ask me why)
- Jack is a man and Jane is a woman
So I persevere, and I was rewarded with a truly unique, authentic story. A story with a heart and come with much pain and betrayal. It has an almost all male cast with Delilah Brown as the elusive seductress, there is enough male banter to make me smile, very evocative of the period with the whole jazz music and lingo (I love listening to jazz and jazz singers, but I don’t claim to know the older generations except Louis Armstrong), there was enough fear to make me cringe at the knock of the door and a kick of the boot, and enough heart that made me want to take out a hanky and dab those nearly fallen tears.
The tall Boots done soften his voice, too. It was odder than odd; these Boots was so courteous, so upstage in their behaviour, they might’ve been talking bout the weather. Nothing like how they’d behaved in Berlin. There was even a weak apology in their gestures, like they was gentlemen at heart, and only rough times forced them to act this way. And this politeness, this quiet civility, it scared me more than outright violence. It seemed a newer kind of brutality. – page 17
The chapters goes back and forth between 1940 and 1992. I can’t help but marvel at the construct of the plot woven with a distinct and vernacular voices. The thing that most break my heart was the jealousy and led to a betrayal and there is one subject that I can’t bear to read is to read about a wasted life. A life which begins full of promise but to fall into pieces at the end, with nothing to show.
The book began with lots of banter and laughter, the middle part of the book a bit of a drag (but that’s because they were trapped in a situation waiting for things to happen) but it was the end, the last 20 pages that did it for me. A memorable scene I will never forget. Confession, redemption, forgiveness, how magnanimous and glorious! Edugyan made Jazz and her characters timeless, which is what Jazz is to me, timeless. She made these characters a legend. A lot of writers flop at their second novel, but not Edugyan, she got better and gave us this. I like this book more than I expected. I love female writers who can do male voices. It’s not my favourite orange shortlist but it’s definitely up there with the maestro.
‘I tell you what I know. The world’s damn beautiful. But it’s an accidental beauty. What we do, it’s deliberate. It’s the one damn consolation you can offer not just you own life, but other lives you ain’t even met.’ – Chip, page 334
Listen, jazz, it ain’t just music. It life. You got to have experience to make jazz. – page 202
Paperback. Publisher: Serpent’s Tail, 2012; Length: 343 pages; Setting: Paris, Berlin 1940 and Poland 1992. Source: Westminster Library copy. Finished reading at: 3rd May 2012.
Stu@Winstonsdad:: I enjoyed the interaction of the three main characters ,the book slowly build the tension of the german army arriving ,and the later story shows how when time has passed we are willing to open up.
Sam@tiny library: I was also impressed with how well Edugyan wrote from the male perspective of Sid. She used the vernacular of 1930s Baltimore and made Sid believable as a kid from the wrong side of the tracks. I liked the language quirks and deliberate misuse of grammar. From a structural point of view, it also worked that the story wasn’t told chronologically, rather jumping back and forth from the war to the 1990s – it kept the tension going.
Jackie@farmlane books: Initially I found the writing very engaging, but it did lose some momentum in the central section. This slight lull in plot was quickly forgotten as I reached the final pages – I loved the emotional ending.
About the writer:
Esi Edugyan is a Canadian novelist. Born and raised in Calgary, Alberta to Ghanaian immigrant parents, she studied creative writing at the University of Victoria and Johns Hopkins University before publishing her debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, in 2004.
Despite favourable reviews for her first novel, Edugyan had difficulty securing a publisher for her second fiction manuscript. She spent some time as a writer-in-residence in Stuttgart, Germany, which inspired her to write another novel, Half-Blood Blues, about a mixed-race jazz musician in World War II-era Europe who is abducted by the Nazis as a “Rhineland Bastard”. Published in 2011, Half-Blood Blues was announced as a shortlisted nominee for that year’s Man Booker Prize, Scotiabank Giller Prize, Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and Governor General’s Award for English language fiction. She was one of two Canadian writers, alongside Patrick deWitt, to make all four award lists in 2011. On November 8, 2011 she won the Giller Prize for Half-Blood Blues. Again alongside deWitt, Half-Blood Blues was also shortlisted for the 2012 Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. In April 2012, it was announced that Edugyan had won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Half-Blood Blues. Edugyan lives in Victoria, British Columbia, and is married to novelist and poet Steven Price.