Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Review: Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

As everyone probably knows by now, Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues has gotten nods from pretty much every major literary award it’s been eligible for, including the Man Booker (announced later today), the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for Literature. For a novel to pull off that kind of feat, one could argue, it needs to be about more than just one thing, to have more than one essence at its core.

Half-Blood Blues certainly fits the bill. For some, this book will be a richly researched historical novel about the terror that the Nazis brought to every aspect of daily life in Europe during the late 30s and early 40s. For others, it will be about the golden age of jazz and the inherently seditious spirit of that music. For still others, it will be about the problematic issues of miscegenation, statelessness and bigotry.

I got something much more basic and primal out of it. For me, Half-Blood Blues is a yarn about good old-fashioned jealousy. Male jealousy, no less. Edugyan has nailed with pitch-perfect tenderness the sort of rivalry that can arise between men when one’s talent is not equal to one’s desires and self image. The story, about a group of black musicians recording jazz in Nazi Germany and France, is narrated by Sid, who finds his abilities dwarfed by his fellow band mate Hiero. Edugyan articulates Sid’s envy in a passage I had to read over and over again for its brilliance:
He got genius, he got genius in spades. Cut him in half, he still worth three of me. It ain’t fair. It ain’t fair that I struggle and struggle to sound just second-rate, and the damn kid just wake up, spit through his horn, and it sing like nightingales. It ain’t fair. Gifts is divided so damned unevenly. Like God just left his damn sack of talents in a ditch somewhere and said, Go help youselves, 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 is. And I just was not.
Edugyan does many things well in this novel and only a few things not so well. She really captures the nuances of Sid’s voice and the way it changes between the two time periods in the book. She’s done an excellent job rendering Louis Armstrong into a full-fledged character, putting together apt descriptions of his mannerisms and then shading them with her own imagination. And she creates incredible tension in scenes where the band encounters Nazis in an official capacity, the helplessness and terror of it all.

I did find that the novel dragged a little during the build-up between Sid and his love interest, Delilah: the narration dwells a bit too long on his adolescent emotions when so many more interesting things are happening around him. I also thought there was a bit too much philosophizing near the end of the story: Edugyan would have done better to leave us alone to come up with our own conclusions.

But these are small quibbles about a brilliantly executed book. What I loved most about Half-Blood Blues was the way that Sid’s rivalry with Hiero isn’t just an end in itself; it plays a pivotal (but not contrived) role in the plot. Petty jealousies have life-altering consequences in this story, and the passing of decades does little to dull the need for admission and forgiveness.

Edugyan has written a great book that will hit readers on a multitude of levels. It’s definitely worthy of the accolades it’s received.

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