Saturday, February 18, 2012

half-blood blues: review

Unlike the book I reviewed yesterday, Esi Edugyan's Half-Blood Blues was a langorous read of a langorous story spread out over lives and countries and eras. There's a reason this book was nominated for nearly every prestigious English language book award, short-listed for the Booker, and the winner of the Giller prize - it is lovely, powerful, insightful, graceful and moving. 

I love books about race - the American Civil War, the American Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow, Jewish persecution and the holocaust. I do not love these books because of the ugliness of man that they show, but because they tend to balance that ugliness with beauty. Balance like that, in itself, is beautiful. I love an over-comer story. I love when right wins out, as it tends to in these stories. 

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What is unique about Half-Blood Blues is that none of the major players - bad guys or otherwise - are racially different. All of the main characters are of African descent, though in variations of colour. There is no white saviour coming to their aid as there is in The Help or Schindler's Ark. There is not even a higher power - except perhaps the music itself.  Yes, they are in Nazi Germany for much of the story, and then in occupied Paris, in a setting of persecution and fear and violence. Yes, the American musicians have come to Europe to escape the Jim Crow laws in place in 1930s America. But that setting - those environments - are only an external actor inside which the characters play out their own dramas. 

Race is inescapably relevant and crucial to this story, but it the bass line of this jazz song that keeps it moving in a united way - the melody, the harmonies, the riffs and codas and chorus are broader issues. Love, friendship, history, economy, talent, insecurity. And like all good stories, failure and redemption. 

It's a lot to handle, and Esi Edugyan is a masterful band leader. Her words are lyrical without seeming manipulated. The jazz world sings in a completely uncontrived way. The characters dance through life with emotion and depth and completeness. 

I'm proud to know that the author lives in my small city. They she wrote this novel largely in a downtown coffee shop. That she's a young mom at the beginning of what I hope will be a long career. I look forward to reading her previous novel, and will follow her for ones that follow. 

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