Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Half-Blood Blues a gripping, compelling novel

Book 122: Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
Half-Blood Blues is a melancholy composition of envy and regret.

Written by Esi Edugyan, and short-listed for the 2011 Booker Prize, the novel focuses on a trio of jazz musicians. It ranges from Nazi Germany in 1936 to occupied France to Europe in the early '90s.

The trio is comprised of two Baltimore-born, African Americans -- Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones --- and Hieronymous Falk, a promising young trumpet-player. Falk is a mischling, a derogatory term used during the Third Reich to denote someone with only partial Aryan ancestry. 

Falk has a German mother and an African father. His mixed parentage places him a grave risk from zealous Nazis.

In the mid '30s, Falks, Griffiths and Jones are part of the Hot Time Swingers, a popular Berlin jazz band. After a run-in with Nazis, the three flee to Paris.  There two of the three – Jones and Falk -- begin recording with Louis Armstrong.

Shattered by his exclusion from the recording process, Griffiths resentment of Falk grows. He is envious of the young man’s talent, his opportunity and the praise that comes his way.  Griffith also feels threatened because he believes Falk is competition for an attractive woman who is briefly Griffith’s lover.

The war follows the men to Paris. Before the three can escape, Griffiths makes a decision that leads to Falk’s arrest. The young musician disappears and is not heard from again for decades.

When Falk does resurface, Sid must confront his actions and the emotions that drove them.

The treatment of blacks by the Nazis during World War II is a historical tragedy largely neglected by fiction writers. Edugyan is to be praised for her illuminating exploration of this important, but long-neglected subject. 

Her portrayal of Berlin and Paris in the hands of the Nazis -- and the ever present threat to Falk because of his parentage -- is gripping. 

Her portrayal of the musicians and their devotion to their craft is also spot on. 

Half-Blood Blues is a compelling novel from a gifted and insightful young writer.

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