I’ve been wanting to read Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugan’s Giller prize-winning, Booker prize-shortlisted novel, ever since it came out in 2011- its only taken a “Music” bingo square to finally get me there. Half-Blood Blues is a beautifully written, deeply layered, and historically fascinating novel about a group of mixed-race jazz musicians in Paris and Berlin during the wild interwar years. The novel opens in Paris in 1941, when one of the band members gets ‘pinched’ by the occupying Nazis. From this navel, the novel flashes forward to the US and Germany in the 1990s, when there is documentary and retrospective of the band, as well as backwards to Berlin in 1939, when the band was invited to Paris to play with Louis Armstrong. Our narrator is Sid Griffiths, who plays bass in the band, but we are also intimately acquainted with the other members of the band, especially Sid’s fellow American, Chip Jones, and the band’s star, the half-black German Hiero Falk.
Edugan packs a lot in- a love story, an album story, a war story, Sid’s personal journey- and she does so with style, peppering Sid’s narrative with lots of slang that feels real (not that know- but it feels real is what I’m saying). I had to purposefully slow my reading down so that I could enjoy the words rather than rushing through for the plot.
Two other things I really enjoyed: 1) the simultaneous excitement and danger of Berlin and Paris almost sparks off the page, and it made me want more- I wanted to go watch all sorts of interwar movies and documentaries; and 2) the history lessons that Edugan has tucked into and in between the plotlines are fascinating- I didn’t realize that American jazz was so popular in Europe in the 30s, and I’d never really thought much about Germany’s African colonies, or that they might have immigrated to the Mother colonizer, and started families there.
This was a great read, and I think it’ll make a great re-read- one to keep on the shelf.