As a person of mixed race (White mother, Black father) who loves the blues, I thought that a book like Half-Blood Blues (featuring several mixed race characters and blues) would be right up my alley. It was not. In fact, it took me nearly a week to read the first 50 pages and I was bored to death almost the whole time. On page 54 things finally (finally!) got interesting from a story standpoint, but I still had to contend with the writing, which never took off for me. This is in part because I struggle with reading dialogue written in the vernacular, which is nearly all of the dialogue in this book. And that’s on me. But, the writing, in addition to being filled with slang, is boring and none of the characters seemed to have any motivation so it was also frustrating. And that’s on the author.
The book takes place in both 1939/1940 and 1992 and is written from the POV of an upright blues base player named Sid Griffiths. Sid and his frenemy, Charles “Chip” Jones, played in a blues band together in the 1930s, fled Germany to France together right before Germany invaded, and fled Paris back to Baltimore together. And, in 1992, they travelled back to Berlin together for a blues festival. But, near as I can tell, Sid hates Chip and always has, like from the first time he saw him, without even talking to him.
Sid and Chip are both bluesmen from Baltimore and Chip is brown-skinned with lips like an oyster but Sid is biracial, and I guess good-looking? It’s not really stated, but I guess it’s sort of implied from the fact that members of Sid’s family are so light in complexion that some of his extended family have chosen to “pass” for white. No one in Sid’s immediate family “passed” until Sid found himself in Germany in the 1930s and Hitler’s rise to power forced him to accept a forged Aryan identity card.
Another biracial character in the book is a woman named Delilah Brown, who was a blues singer, but in 1939 was working for Louis Armstrong. Sid falls in love with Delilah. Sort of. I guess. I mean, he describes her as definitely not beautiful, with skin that is an “odd tawny colour, like oats.” He also describes her body as looking like “planks nailed together” and her teeth as both tiny and crooked. And I think she might also have an underbite? But, he describes her voice as “low-pitched, cozy, full of the dark tones of my old life in Baltimore.” And all of the sudden, he decides he thinks her “crooked teeth seemed suddenly sensual.”
But, here’s the what with that. The author in no way sells this change of heart. I mean, Sid makes fun of the guy he first sees with Delilah for hanging out with such an ugly woman, but then she murmurs “Mmm. Of course he is,” to him a mere 15 minutes later and all the sudden he is ready to fight the rest of the band for a chance at her? I don’t even know.
Speaking of the rest of the band, the third biracial character is Hieronymus Falk. Hiero is what they call a mischling (German for “half-blood”); as he is a German citizen being the child of a German woman and a Sudanese soldier. Unlike Sid, he is not light enough to pass, nor is he an odd color like Delilah. No, Hiero is dark. Like eggplant dark, like you wouldn’t know by looking at him that his is mixed. And like the other characters in the book, Hiero is a blues musician. He is a trumpet player who plays so well that Louis Armstrong calls him Little Louis. In fact, Louis Armstrong and everyone else proclaim Hiero to be a genius.
But, not Sid, because he is jealous. And, honestly, a pretty terrible person. And again, the author doesn’t really explain why. The only reason I made it through the book was the suspense around what happened to all of the musicians, after Germany invades Paris where they are working on a record. Especially Hiero as a black German, living in German-occupied Paris with no papers. And the author does a good job of building that suspense (eventually). But, once I found out what happened, I was mad at the author again because there is no rhyme or reason to it. Except that Sid is a jerk.
I guess what I’m saying is no. I didn’t like the writing and I didn’t like the main character and while the story might have been interesting in the hand of a different writer, it was not enough to save this book for me. I’ll give it 2.5 stars but probably won’t ever pick up anything else by this author.