Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues
Thomas Allen Publishers, 2011
In the opening pages of Esi Edugyan’s second novel, readers meet Heiro, Chip, Delilah and Sid, and are immersed in 1940 Paris.
The sensory detail is light-handed, but it works seamlessly with dialogue, cadence, and tone to draw readers into the story.
“Going over to the icebox, the barkeep stare at me a second, then glance on up at the clock. I check my own watch. Five to ten. He wandered on back with a glass of milk, his voice cracking against the silence like snooker balls hitting each other. ‘But I warn you,’ he said. ‘You drink all the milk in France, you still not turn white.’ He laughed his strange, high, feathery laugh.’
It’s a scenic introduction, but as the novel moves along, readers settle these characters into a bigger picture and gain a deeper understanding of each, individually and as a member of an ensemble.
Heiro is a German Louis Armstrong: every horn player to come acknowledges a debt to him. Chip is a great American drummer, who could beat the life out of his drums but nearly ruined himself. And “Delilah, sweet Delilah. Sweet like lemon in a wound.”
And, then there is Sid, the upright bass player, the least famous, the solid and dependable one.
It’s Sid, the one who never made it, who is at the heart of the narrative. Perhaps it’s the less obvious choice, but it’s also the more interesting one, that which begs for explanations.
Not everybody recognizes the distinctions Sid makes; onlookers don’t always share his evaluations, might not agree that he has failed.
As one character says to members of the band: “I don’t think I understand jazz, but I do admire the passion you boys devote to it. Dedication can be genius in its own right.”
But Sid does not believe that dedication is the same as genius.
And nor does he believe what another character tells him: “You got the talent of making others your kin, your blood. But music, well it’s different. I reckon it got its own worth. But it ain’t a man’s whole life.”
For Sid, music was his whole life: he wanted nothing more. Although, ironically, for some in this time period, there was nothing more important than blood.
The Nazis have invaded Poland. Calls have been issued for large groups of people to report en masse to the authorities. To go out at night to buy a glass of milk, you must have identification which clarifies your bloodline.
Sometimes this is a simple matter. But, mostly, it is complicated. And Esi Edugyan’s novel resides in the heart of that complexity.
“This girl was high yella, like me. A Mischling, a half-blood. She got the kind of mixed-race only a keen eye can see.”
For some members of the group (it began with more than the members that readers meet in the opening pages, but the back-story unfolds across the length of Half-Blood Blues), passing is the answer. But passing, too, comes at a price.
“So we passed, sure. But there was passing, and there was passing. Sometimes it seemed we’d passed right out of our own skins.”
Readers are wholly immersed in the story from Sid’s perspective. There are no sweeping historical statements. The overwhelming sense of the characters’ experience is not what they know and understand of what’s happening, but that they don’t know or understand what is happening.
It is an atmosphere of uncertainty, charged with the peculiar tension that resides in not-knowing.
Mostly this is presented with a soft touch.
“The flies was huge, armoured things, they swarmed in the cool air. There wasn’t no sun in the sky, just a white haze. I slapped weakly at my neck and wrists. I could see the spots of blood where they already got at me.”
Nonetheless, a single deftly handled statement can hold a powerful image.
“But it seemed all Paris was waiting too. Anxiety hung over the streets like clothes on a line.”
Even when the narrative travels forward to 1992, it doesn’t seem as though Sid has much more to say about the topic.
Partly this is because it’s not his nature. “There was so much running through me, so much I got no intention of saying or couldn’t even think how to express.”
Partly it’s because he has “no taste for resurrecting all that. Not after what had happened.”
(This is announced early on: another layer to the novel’s tension. Readers want to know what had happened too.)
Readers gain a bit of historical perspective through some commentary on a documentary that’s been produced about this time period. A scholar discusses the fact that you can’t generalize about the experience s of black people under the Third Reich (because an African diplomat’s child would have had a very different experience from an African-American entertainer) and refers to different countries’ policies during key years. (It’s a subtle way of delivering the information and, although Sid doesn’t appreciate the scholar’s perspective, many readers will find it useful to know that.)
Some other information is offered via dialogue between characters, which contrasts their experiences in the years leading up to the war. (What better way to have this kind of context drawn for the reader. It feels completely natural, and it simultaneously adds to character and plot.)
But ultimately this is a very personal story which unfolds against a bold historical backdrop. Readers looking for a “second world war novel”, may well be disappointed. Half-Blood Blues is, when all is written and told, Sid’s story: a story of a moment.
“Hell, I known this was it, this was our moment, our lifetime. Folks think a lifetime is a thing stretched out over years. It ain’t. It can happen quick as a match in a dark room.”
A grumpy old man can win. Barney did. (Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version) Unexpected perspectives can make the short list. The story Barbara Gowdy told was familiar, but we hadn’t heard that POV. (The White Bone) Esi Edugyan’s novel offers something different, but is it too fresh for the Giller? [Edited to add: perfectly fresh, apparently, as it won!]
Moves between WWII and 1992. Single narrative voice. Complicated by the fact that there are things that Sidney Griffiths doesn’t want to talk about, doesn’t even want to think about. And the reader is shifting through time with Sidney, so you can see how that’s going to be tricky.
“Hell. Day I listen to advice from jacks in the sauce, that be the day I hang up my old spurs.”
“He’s going to hang up his spurs,” Paul smiled.
“No more ridin for Sid,” said Chip. “You pourin us another finger? Pour one for Sid too.”
Partly Europe. Partly America. Lots of indoor scenes that could be anywhere, except for the fact that the events transpire because these people are where they are: location, location, location. (And because they are who they are, and they are born of whom they’re born.) Naming places = spoiler-ness.
“I kept seeing the quiet pain in his face, like he known for weeks the end was near, but was paralyzed now that it had finally arrived.” Readers engage with the plot to the extent that they are willing to accompany Sid on a journey to a painful and dark time and place in his memory
You appreciate a story told in its own voice. You like to listen to music while you read, while you’re doing almost anything actually. You don’t need a lot of sensory detail to sketch a scene. You view the world as a jigsaw and love feeling as though you’ve discovered a missing piece.
Jackie Kay’s Trumpet (another horn player)
George Elliott Clarke’s Whylah Falls (1990) (similar time, different place, passion and rhythm-soaked)
Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love (2005) (crossing the years, wartime and back)
Also, check out the bibliography that the author offers, and her website.
Are you reading this one, have you read it already, or are you planning to?