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Half-Blood Blues: A Novel [Paperback]

Esi Edugyan
3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Aug. 25 2011

Winner of the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize, short-listed for the 2011 Governor General's Award for Fiction

Paris, 1940.  A brilliant jazz musician, Hiero, is arrested by the Nazis and never heard from again.  He is twenty years old.  He is a German citizen.  And he is black.

Fifty years later, his friend and fellow musician, Sid, must relive that unforgettable time, revealing the friendships, love affairs and treacheries that sealed Hiero's fate. From the smoky bars of pre-war Berlin to the salons of Paris – where the legendary Louis Armstrong makes an appearance – Sid, with his distinctive and rhythmic German-American slang, leads the reader through a fascinating world alive with passion, music and the spirit of the resistance. Half-Blood Blues, the second novel by an exceptionally talented young writer, is an entrancing, electric story about jazz, race, love and loyalty, and the sacrifices we ask of ourselves, and demand of others, in the name of art.

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...a stunning, powerful read, a compelling story brilliantly told.

Half-Blood Blues can be compared to a jazz symphony with discrete movements, shifting moods and a complex chorus of human and instrumental voices: It swings between present and past, North and South, East and West, black and white, art and violence, war and peace... Edugyan's musically educated ear allows her to transpose notes into words and back again... a brilliantly conceived, gorgeously executed novel.

Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan has written a truly beautiful novel.

Half-Blood Blues is an engrossing and unforgettable story.

... surprisingly bouyant. It's deftly paced in incident and tone, moving from scenes of snappy dialogue...to tense, atmospheric passages of description... Half-Blood Blues itself represents a kind of flowering -- that of a gifted storyteller.

...Half-Blood Blues has one of the most beautiful and understated resolutions in recent Canadian literature.

Half-Blood Blues... is a stunningly good novel about a time in music that still resonates today. Punctuated with the beat of jazz, it has moments of sheer magic.

Her style is deceptively conversational and easy, but with the simultaneous exuberance and discipline of a true prodigy.

...when Edugyan writes about the music, you can feel it vibrating in your bones.

...Edugyan draws us into the story with brilliant cadence to her writing. Like a drummer counting down the beat for the band, Edugyan creates a rhythm in her dialogue that sings.


“Edugyan’s elegiac, shimmering prose makes up for the lack of sunny skies in this impressively conceived and well-executed debut.“ ?Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Edugyan’s spare prose, visceral images, and unfussy dialogue create a suitably ominous atmosphere?. The close... is astonishingly moving. A talented writer to watch.“ ?Kirkus Reviews

“[P]acks a powerful emotional punch.... Fine writing, subtle characterisation and a convincing portrayal of place and period mark out this engaging first work, reminiscent of early VS Naipaul.“ ?The Guardian (UK)

“In this brilliantly written debut novel, Edugyan flawlessly creates and maintains a pervasive sense of hope loneliness, foreboding and futility.“ ?Black Issues Book Review (US)

“[The Second Life of Samuel Tyne] balances the brilliance and audacity of youthful enthusiasm with sage awareness. It’s an impressive debut? a beautifully written novel.“ ?Toronto Star

“An assured and insightful first novel of displacement of fractured identity....This deftly constructed tale... of one tiny, befuddled corner of the African diaspora is finally about all of us?about the hope we have of being our best selves, before it’s too late.“ ?The Globe and Mail

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
59 of 60 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The death of jazz at the dawn of Nazism Sept. 8 2011
By Paolo TOP 1000 REVIEWER
This is a story of the death of jazz at the dawn of Nazism in Germany. The name 'Half-Blood Blues' takes its inspiration from the book's hero and a jazz legend in the making Hieronymous 'Hiero' Falk is just nineteen when he starts playing with the 'Hot Time Swingers' alongside Charles 'Chip Jones and Sidney 'Sid' Griffiths, the narrator of the tale. The son of a German woman and a French African brought in to marshal the Rheinland after that part of Germany was ceded to France after the Treaty of Versailles. Hiero is a half-breed or 'mischling'.

The story is set both in the 1940s in Berlin and Paris as the Trio try to stay one step ahead of Hitler's ever advancing army but also in the 1990s in a newly reunited Germany at a concert in Hiero's honour. At the heart of the story is the secret Sid harbours as to how Hiero's fate was sealed.

I didn't expect to enjoy this book and it starts slowly but it is a tale that draws you in. Literary takes on music rarely seem to work but Edugyan is able to render the atmosphere of 1940s jazz, the language of the trio and banter between them feels authentic. The plot is a little weak to sustain the length and the potentially most interesting of the characters, Hiero, is the least well developed but by the end of the book they seem like minor complaints as is the rather random and quite pointless inclusion of Louis Armstrong who makes an appearance. A more major complaint on my behalf is that the list price for this trade paperback is $24.95 which seems like daylight robbery especially since the text is littered with typos and printing errors; if you're going to charge that much then at least earn it with some better proofreading. However I shall not hold the publisher's problems against the author.
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45 of 48 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good writer, great concept, serious flaw Nov. 14 2011
Ms. Egugyan's literary talent is evident in this book. She is, as the critics like to say, in control of her work. And the concept of developing a novel set among (mostly) black jazz musicians in Germany and France in the immediate pre-WWII days is brilliant. But despite these qualities, it doesn't really work.

The plot has been spelled out here by other reviewers, so there is no need to replicate it. I agree that the inclusion of Louis Armstrong added little to the story, and the pivotal character, Hiero, is never really developed although he morphs into a wide icon at the end. For most of the book he is more a sullen juvenile than anyone we can care about.

The major flaw is the author''s apparent lack of familiarity with jazz of any era, especially her inability to express the mood of the musicians and the impact of the music itself. This is hardly unique to her, but it seemed to me that it would be totally necessary in order to justify the personalities and actions of the characters. Jazz, after all, is the principal motivator of both the plot and characters. Nothing in the book communicates the passion they feel (or should) for their music; the author's attempts to describe their playing is embarrassing in its ineptness. As a musician I have never heard a trumpeter describe his or her possessing 'pistons'; they are always valves. And it is impossible, by his words, to believe the narrator actually played a bass fiddle (my instrument), as claimed in the story.

Small points? Maybe. But verisimilitude is vital to any story, especially one as era- and culture-specific as this.

I know the book has won major awards and congratulations to the author for them. But if you know as much as the author should know about one of the two primary subjects (jazz and the Nazis), it's a disappointment.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Haunting story, beautifully told Nov. 26 2011
Esi Edugyan's novel was shortlisted for 4 major literary prizes and won one of them, the Giller Prize, for good reason. The story focuses on jazz musicians in Europe between the the two world wars, and sheds light on a fascinating but little known quirk of history: black Germans, the offspring of German women and African soldiers from French colonies who were sent to occupy the Rhineland after WWI. One of these, Hiero, is a musical genius and the plot revolves in part around him and his mysterious disappearance.

The narrator, Sid, is an African-American bass player playing jazz in Germany in a legendary combo along with Hiero. He's been criticized by at least one influential critic for not being very likeable, but that has surely never been a criterion for creating memorable characters in fiction. His "voice" is distinctive and I found him highly engaging, perhaps all the more so for his failings as a human being. These in fact turn out to be crucial to the story, which shifts from just before WWII to 1992, when Sid and the other surviving musician from the band travel back to Berlin.

Another reviewer complained here on Amazon that the book is littered with typos and errors: I don't think so. I suspect that person hasn't caught on to the slang and near-dialect the characters use, which subtly change depending on whether it's 1940 or 1992. (E.g., Sid often says "you" instead of "your," drops his "g"s on words like "going" in the earlier sections, etc.) As well, the author has stated in interviews that some of the slang is based on written accounts by jazz musicians of the period, and some of it, such as the nickname "boots" for Nazi soldiers, she made up. The writing flows along with its own rhythms and quirks, like improvised jazz.

All in all, a compelling read!
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Half Blood Blues
A very well written book with so much interest and information. A great story using historical facts. Well researched. Highly recommend this book.
Published 5 months ago by Lucy Kukac
4.0 out of 5 stars Americans In Berlin
Really a great book to read. It took my imagination right back to a time when Jazz and swing was alive in Paris and Berlin. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Harvey Brown
1.0 out of 5 stars Not recommended
this story had promise - interesting time period and subject; good research of the slang. But in the end none of the main characters were likeable and none of them are redeemed. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Catherine Elder
4.0 out of 5 stars Most of the members of the book club liked this one.
I found it well worth reading and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a story of young jazz musicians who find themselves in Berlin in the late '30s. The characters are well portrayed. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Janet C. W. B.
5.0 out of 5 stars beautiful
Everything about this story is told with care and precision. It's an aspect of the war I'd never considered and found heartbreaking in an unexpected way. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Brad Micklea
1.0 out of 5 stars Not a book I even half finished.
I thought it was boring and only read a few pages. Not sure why it did not grab my attention although I
think some readers would get right into it.
Published 10 months ago by Anne Cromack
4.0 out of 5 stars Great if you like jazz
Enjoyable read from times long passed. Good reading for any jazz lover. It also portrayed something of the problems in Gerrnany at the beginning of the second world war.
Published 10 months ago by May Heinrich
5.0 out of 5 stars Stunning Novel
There aren't that many novels that come along that stop me in my track. Half-Blood Blues was such a novel. Esi Edugyan is so talented it is almost too good to be true. Read more
Published 11 months ago by AMR
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read!
A friend recommended this one that their book club was reading. I was intrigued by the topic although I didnt know the author. I enjoyed both the story and the author's style. Read more
Published 13 months ago by Bookworm
4.0 out of 5 stars Must read
Took a while to understand the language, but then turned out to be an absolutely wonderful read.
Take the time to enjoy this book, not a beach read.
Published 18 months ago by Deborah
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