Half-Blood Blues / Esi Edugyan

This novel opens in 1939 Berlin where a popular German American jazz band has been forbidden to play live because of the degenerate Negro music they perform.  The two Americans in the band are black, as is the band’s star, Hieronymus Falk, but he is a German citizen.  A brilliant twenty-year old trumpet player, his ability has captured the interest of Louis Armstrong who is living in Paris at the time.  When the Nazis arrest one player in the group, the rest flee to Paris where Armstrong gives them a shot at making a record.  While recording it, war is declared and in June 1940, the German army occupies the capital of France.  Soon after, Falk is arrested and disappears into a concentration camp in Eastern Europe.  Jumping ahead to Berlin 1992, Falk is now a jazz legend for the band’s 1940 recording that was rediscovered following the war.  The two American band members, Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones, are back in Germany to attend a documentary movie about Falk.  Their return to Germany and the documentary brings back many memories, and for Sid, a dark secret that he has long kept hidden regarding Falk’s arrest.  Edugyan does a marvelous job of recreating Berlin and Paris during the dark days of 1939 and 1940. She also excels at describing the bond of friendship that joined Falk, Griffiths, and Jones, which transcended the music they played together.  What she did not do nearly as well is make Falk a life-like character.  He remains a remote figure throughout the story, more legend than a person.  This was probably by intent, yet it prevented me from truly identifying with him or his plight.  I also failed to get a sense that these three men were master musicians.  Music in this novel takes a back seat to what happens off stage once their instruments are put down.  Even so, Edugyan’s second novel is a fresh and interesting read that recreates the plight of three black men caught up in war’s destructive whirlwind.


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