Sunday, 16 September 2012

Esi Edugyan: Half Blood Blues (2011)

Edition: Serpent's Tail, 2011
Review number: 1463

The treatment of Jews by the Nazis during the Second World War is well known (even if a small minority of people claim that the Holocaust did not happen), but the knowledge that similar efforts were made to destroy other groups (such as gypsies and homosexuals) is less widespread. This novel is the story of three black men, jazz musicians, in Germany and then France as the war broke out and France was occupied. Jazz music was banned as degenerate by the Nazis, which makes them even worse in the eyes of the German state and its functionaries, One of the musicians, trumpeter Hiero, is actually German by nationality, so is even more unwelcome in the land of his birth. He is unable to get travel papers as easily as the others, who are Americans, and they end up making a recording named Half Blood Blues in a tiny studio in Paris, which, when discovered after the war, is acclaimed as a classic, along with Hiero being regarded as a jazz great tragically lost when he is arrested and taken to the concentration camps shortly after the session.

Half Blood Blues was nominated for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, but failed to win. Neither is a surprise to me. The novel has some truly brilliant writing, but my interest flagged in the middle. The background of wartime Europe is less interesting than the sections about jazz, and what it feels like to be a jazz musician is far more enthralling than the plot.

Although jazz has never been music which really spoke to me - I keep on trying, to see if I can pick up what others love about it so much - I have done a fair amount of musical improvisation. I can't claim to be very gifted at it, but on occasion it has just clicked, and when this happens while playing with others also "in the groove", it produces a euphoric feeling which is like no other I have ever felt and which I can never forget even though I rarely play now and never perform any more. In her descriptions of the session when the main characters jam with Louis Armstrong and in the Half Blood Blues session itself, Edugyan comes close to expressing that feeling in prose, and then goes on to nail the draining numbness and despair which comes to those who (unlike me) have been able to touch a vein of inspiration frequently enough to become professionals when they are unable to perform as well as they want: a feeling probably at the source of at least some of the drug habits which have plagued many famous jazz musicians.

It is the wartime aspects of the novel - the terrible choices which must be made, the lost companions, the betrayals - which work less well. However gifted Edugyan is at bring the experience of music making alive for the reader, she does not appear to be a thriller writer. The slackness of this side of the novel is why the middle parts drag.

While tempted to give a higher rating to this novel for the brilliance of its evocation of performance, I don't really think that Half Blood Blues can be rated higher than 6/10 overall.

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