I’m really thrilled to introduce Bookgaga blog visitors to another wise and diligent guest book reviewer. Sue Reynolds is a life-long reader and animal lover whose sudden, passionate love for Bette Davis movies threatens to consume all of her reading time.
Half-Blood Blues has won or been shortlisted for an impressive array of prestigious awards since its publication in 2011. It won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Orange Prize for Fiction and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, to name a few. The great success of the book has generated countless descriptions and reviews, both in print and online. In the interest of taking a different approach, the Bookgaga kindly suggested that my review might take the Canada Reads theme into consideration.
Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan’s second novel, moves back and forth between Berlin and Paris in 1939-40, and Berlin and Poland in 1992. Its action revolves around a jazz band, the Hot-Times Swingers, which is composed of black and white musicians from the United States and Europe. With World War II looming on the horizon and harassment of “undesirables” (band members Chip and Hiero are both dark-skinned black men, Paul is a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jew) becoming increasingly violent, the Hot-Times Swingers flee Berlin for Paris, partly to escape the worsening situation in Berlin, partly to meet and record with Louis Armstrong.
Edugyan smoothly moves from the drama of the Swingers, their interpersonal tensions, artistic struggles and more serious challenges of avoiding the Nazi presence in Berlin and Paris, to future scenes with the surviving members, years later, who are now old men. The 1992 sections of the novel feel almost like a detective story, as Sid, our elderly narrator, and his best friend, Chip, travel to Berlin and Poland in search of Hiero, the genius trumpeter, assumed killed during the war but alive and living in obscurity.
Canada Reads asks: what is the one novel that could change Canada, that Canadians can look to for inspiration? That will compel Canadians to make a change in their lives, at home or at work, in their community, in their country or around the world? Although the bulk of Half-Blood Blues takes place on the world stage with the horrors of World War II as a backdrop, the novel has an intimate and personal feel to it. We are witness to the creative process that Sid and his bandmates live for and we watch Sid’s infatuation with jazz singer Delilah Brown play itself out.
Half-Blood Blues works its magic, not necessarily through its story, but in how it tells that story. Edugyan conveys the mysteries of jazz music through her use of the written word:
“Kid wasn’t even hardly listening, it seemed. Handling his horn with a unexpected looseness, with a almost slack hand, he coaxed a strange little groan from his brass. Like there was this trapped panic, this barely held-in chaos, and Hiero hisself was the lid.
…I might’ve been crying. It was the sound of something growing a crust, some watery thing finally gelling. The very sound of age, of growing older, of adolescent rage being tempered by a man’s heart. Yeah, that was it. It was the sound of the kid’s coming of age. As if he taken on some of old Armstrong’s colossal sadness.” (p. 278)
Whether Edugyan is describing the freedom found in creating music or the chaos of thousands of panicked Parisians trying to flee their occupied city, her prose sings and reminds us that we are interacting with a living, breathing language. This, I think, is her gift to her readers: she calls attention to the musical, evocative beauty of the English language, how it can be bent and twisted to do the writer’s bidding.
Should all of Canada read Half-Blood Blues we may end up with a nation of book-lovers who have decided to read aloud, the better to hear the music embedded in every text they open.
Note: I’m approaching my preparations for Canada Reads 2014 a little differently than previous years. This year, I’m not reading and reviewing the books in advance of the debates. Instead, I’ve asked five wise and articulate readers – of whom Sue is the third – to review the finalist books and convince me one way or the other of the value of the book and its suitability for this year’s Canada Reads theme of “What is the one book that could change Canada?”