Book Review: Esi Edugyan – Half Blood Blues

Esi Edugyan – Half Blood Blues
(Serpent’s Tail, 345pp., £10.99. Book Review by Chris Parker)

First, the good news: a book with jazz musicians as its central characters, set at a time when the music came closest to being popular worldwide, and informed by what appears to be genuine love of and respect for said music, has been shortlisted for the most prestigious prize in the English-speaking literary world: the Booker.

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Now the bad news: both as a novel per se, and (particularly) as a representation of jazz and the musicians who play it, it’s extremely disappointing.

Purely as a novel, Half Blood Blues fails on numerous levels: it’s derivative (the plot, hinging on betrayal and invasion, is oddly reminiscent of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner with occasional flashes of Irène Nemirovsky’s Suite Française), formulaic (demotic first-person narrative written from an ‘older/wiser’ perspective) and simplistic (all shades of morality bleached out by the ghastly glare of Nazism); it also fails to individualise any of its characters, all of whom are unrelievedly ‘flat’ in the Forsterian sense, and it has no narrative ‘pull’, since the most interesting event in it takes place right at the beginning.

In short, if you’re after thoughtful reflection on war and its effects, with special reference to Franco-German hostility, read any of Storm Jameson’s novels on the subject rather than this somewhat superficial yarn.

As far as the representation of jazz and its practitioners is concerned, Edugyan’s novel also disappoints. Of course, fiction writers (or film makers for that matter) are under no obligation whatsoever to present jazz musicians in a favourable light; what they are obliged to do, however, is to present them in as nuanced and subtle a manner as possible. This Edugyan signally fails to do: the ‘half-blood’ (German-Senegalese) trumpet prodigy at the centre of the book is simply a cipher, given little dialogue with which to express his feelings about being raised as a mixed-race child in an increasingly hostile atmosphere as the Third Reich replaces the Weimar Republic; the novel’s eightysomething narrator is self-confessedly ‘unreliable’ and unsympathetic, so fails to engage the reader’s interest, let alone sympathy; his old friend and bandmate Chip is guess what? a hard-drinking ex-junkie with a nasty line in locker-room humour.

One incident will suffice to illustrate the paucity of imagination, the reliance on unpleasant cliché and stereotyping that characterise the novel: the narrator concludes one passage of reminiscence with the words ‘The jazz life. I was hooked.’ So what constitutes ‘the jazz life’ for him? Sneaking into a jazz club in his early teens, watching his friend Chip play drums, being introduced to two women who turn out to be prostitutes, then running away from the brothel to which they take him without paying for the sexual initiation he undergoes there.

All this would not matter so much were it not for the fact that Half Blood Blues is an opportunity missed: anyone who’s read anything on the subject of the Nazis and their attitude to what they termed entartete Musik (there is a short Bibliography in the back of Edugyan’s book, but one of the most revealing works on the subject, Mike Zwerin’s La Tristesse de Saint Louis is not mentioned) will undoubtedly be mystified as to just how such a fascinating subject falls so flat in these pages. And as a final insult, the central character’s name is misspelled on the book’s cover.


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