Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan

Last week I jumped on Esi Edugyan train of a novel, Half Blood Blues. I call it a train because i feel I was truly taken for the most miraculous ride. At times we sped through tranquil landscapes, emotions flying and flaring and at other moments we were forced to pause and listen to the stillness of the perfect musical note trilling against this fraught backdrop of Europe in the 1940s. I felt myself guzzling this novel, literally wolfing it down whole, parts undigested, having to force myself to hold back so that the incredible journey wouldn’t end, so that I could wallow for just a few more pages before I reached the final destination and the porter came to tell me that the ride was over and I had to disembark. 

I loved everything about this book. I loved the fact that I was so surprised by it in so many different ways. I loved the way Edugyan managed to craft these incredible voices which resonated with so many different emotions. I loved the twisted connections between characters, the slow blossoming of relationships and the mateship that characterised the bond between men from different backgrounds with a common love for making music. I loved the way that Edugyan took an era in history that is so written about, so terrifying, and enabled us to see some of the beauty that grew beneath the winds of the Nazi occupation of Europe. In this simple book, she has allowed us to reacquaint ourselves with the humanity behind the horror and the horror within that humanity. 

This is not a happy book, but it is also not a sad one. Rather, it is a beautiful mix of emotions which ebbs and flows much like the music it describes. For me, this ability to take to readers by the hand and lead them ever so gently into the river of the narrative is such I gift that I was literally swept away by Edugyan’s craftsmanship. This novel is a true pleasure to read. It’s voices are so filled with hope, awe and sorrow that one cannot help but be swept away. Reading this book I felt like it’s protagonist, Sidney, as he describes his friend Chip and his ability to play the drums:

“Hell, I known he played the drums a bit, but nothing like this. I watched in awe as Chip skipped gently on the cymbals, worked his skinny thigh into a rhythm on the bass. Holy hell, my boy could wail. Limbs all twitching, his very skin seemed to peel back on the harder hits. Was one of those moments someone comes unclothed, you see this whole other life in the. I was trampled flat.”

And then, his passion for music, for Jazz in particular:

“I was in love. Pure and simple. This place, with its stink of sweat and medicine and perfume; these folks, all gussied up never mind the weather – this, this was life to me. Forget Sunday school and girls in white frocks. Forget stealing from corner stores. This was it, these dames swaying their hips in shimmering dresses, these chaps drinking gutbucket hooch. The gorgeous speakeasy slang. I’d found what my life was meant for.”

And as the story unravels its velvet folds, so the writer interjects with these magical observations about life, the world and the power of passion:

“At last Chip said, ‘I tell you what I know. The world’s damn beautiful. But it’s an accidental beauty. What we do, it’s deliberate. It’s the one damn consolation you can offer not just you own life, but other lives you ain’t even met.’ He gave Hiero a long, thoughtful look. ‘You don’t owe the world nothing, Thomas. I know it. And you a good man. But it sure as hell breaks my heart, missing your music. There been this one brutal emptiness I been hauling around my whole life, and it’s that damn beautiful music of yours. I ain’t never stopped being lonely for it.”

And on it goes. I could add some further spoilers about the plot and the interesting nature of the characters, but I will leave that up to you to discover for yourselves. In short, I found this a magical book, well worth the ride and I will definitely be watching out for more from this incredible author.

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