A bookshop is an incredibly special place. There is something enchanting about walking through the shelves, the scent and eye-catching covers of hundreds upon hundreds of volumes surrounding you. Sometimes, however, the sheer number of books is a bit overwhelming and it’s impossible to know what to choose. At times like this, I look to the critics’ shortlists. It was there that I found Half Blood Blues. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011 (and many other awards besides), Edugyan’s novel is a gripping read set partly in the present and partly in Nazi-occupied Berlin and Paris.
The story is an unusual one, centring around the persecution of a group of jazz musicians under Hitler’s regime and the lasting impact of this on the novel’s narrator into the present. The story begins with the apprehension of Hiero, a young black German national deemed to be the best trumpet player since Louis Armstrong, in Paris. As the novel continues, we see the events that led up to his arrest and what followed through the eyes of first-person narrator Sid Griffiths.
It is easy to see why the piece has won or been nominated for as many different prizes as it has. It is a master class in the first person-narrative, drawing readers into Sid’s mind convincingly both as a younger man and an elderly one. There is a purpose to each character in Edugyan’s work; they are well fleshed out, each contributing to the advancement of the plot. The novel could perhaps have been improved with the addition of a second narrator (Hiero’s viewpoint would have been particularly interesting) but this is merely my personal opinion and the book does work as it is.
The plot is never allowed to become dull. Whenever there is a chance of things slowing down, the novel picks up the pace, changing year or moving the narrative along. Whilst this should go without saying, so many novels which I’ve read recently have contained a deadly sleep-inducing chapter which has left me begging for progression.
For me, Half Blood Blues is a good novel. Its premise is strange and unlikely but also interesting and fresh. Whilst I’m sure the book has the potential to be arduous for those that don’t take to Sid’s narration, I can only imagine that this would affect a very small minority of readers. In all other areas, I found it difficult to fault. It was a quick read, it held my attention and it was well written.
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan is published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail.