Friday, May 4, 2012

book review: Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

The backstory: Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan's second novel, is shortlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize, was shortlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize, and won the 2011 Giller Prize.

The basics: Mostly set in Nazi-occupied Berlin and Paris, Half Blood Blues is the story of a young German & American band, the Hot-Time Swingers. Their most talented member, a black German, is arrested and dies in custody. One recording of the band, survives, however, and Hiero becomes a cult hero.

My thoughts: Early in this novel, Sid and Chip travel to Europe in 1992 to see a documentary about the band. Using a documentary about the characters was a brilliant way to condense their story early on:
"Of course, the recording’s cult status had to do with the illusion of it all. I mean, not just of the kid but of all of us, all the Hot-Time Swingers. Think about it. A bunch of German and American kids meeting up in Berlin and Paris between the wars to make all this wild joyful music before the Nazis kick it to pieces? And the legend survives when a lone tin box is dug out of a damn wall in a flat once belonged to a Nazi? Man. If that ain’t a ghost story, I never heard one."
I wasn't expecting the action to flash forward to 1992 so quickly, but as a narrative device, it placed the events of 1939 and 1940 in a wonderful context. Similarly, I was surprised when the action quickly shifted back to the war. Overall, the time jumps worked well and the reader came to understand the story and characters better through the non-linear narrative. My one complaint was the length of the middle of the book. The action dragged, and at times it read like just another World War II novel. I was more intrigued with the modern piece of the story, and I wish Edugyan would have moved through Paris more quickly.

Still, Half Blood Blues is a fresh perspective on the frequently chronicled time of World War II. Edugyan's exploration of racial issues and jazz were fascinating. I wish the unremarkable love story were not the focus of the book's middle; Edugyan's writing shined most when she talked about music and nationality and faltered a bit with discussions of young love and lust.

Favorite passage: "But I ain’t said it. I don’t know, I guess mercy is a muscle like any other. You got to exercise it, or it just cramp right up."

The verdict: Edugyan's descriptions of jazz and the racial culture in Nazi-occupied Paris and Berlin was stunning. The cadence of the dialogue transported me to those smoky, dusky clubs and evoked the fear of getting caught. Although the action dragged a bit in the middle when it began to feel like 'just another World War II novel,' Half Blood Blues is a tour de force.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: February 28, 2012
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Half-Blood Blues from the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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18 comments:

  1. I loved your review on this one! You were totally able to articulate your love for it right alongside the small issues that you had with the slowness of the plot in the middle sections. I hadn't been interested in reading this one before, but now I want to see if I can get to it. Fantastic review today!

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    1. Thanks, Zibilee! I did really enjoy this one, and to some extent, it's hard to fault a WWII novel for being set then simply because I've read so many that have been. This one is quite a gem, and it's clear why it's been on so many award lists!

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  2. I have to get this one! I don't know if I'll be able to manage a review after reading yours though! After reading Rules of Civility, I'm in the mood for a little more jazz in my life. Glad you enjoyed it! How many books do you have before you're finished with the list?

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    1. I've finished the shortlist:-) and I have six left on the longlist. Wish me luck!

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  3. We both seems to agree that it drags in the middle, but overall I enjoyed the book more than I would expect!

    Here's my review: http://bibliojunkie.wordpress.com/2012/05/05/half-blood-blues-by-esi-edugyan/

    I have 2 more shortlists to go!

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    1. It's a shame the middle drags because I think that's what kept me from being totally over the top about it. Good luck with the last two!

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  4. I liked the fresh perspective in this too - I thought I had read everything about WW2 but this one took me by surprise.

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    1. There's always something new about familiar subjects in great literature, isn't there? I'm glad you enjoyed it too!

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  5. I'm still on the fence about this one -- especially with so many other goodies lingering on my TBR. It's gotten tons of accolades but something in the premise just doesn't do it for me. Hmmphf. :)

    Great review, though, Carrie!

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    1. Andi--I was on the fence forever about this one too. Even after the Booker shortlist and Giller winner announcements, I didn't make time for it. I'm glad I did, and while I did really enjoy it, I'm not convinced it's one I'd drop everything to recommend.

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  6. I was definitely 'eh' on it but your review has convinced me to put it on the TBR -- sounds more interesting than I imagined!

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    1. I was pretty 'eh' on this one for a longtime, but it is a good one--and you'll fly through it!

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  7. Wow this sounds really intense but very good. I think this is one I would really enjoy.

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    1. Amused--knowing how much you love World War II novels, I think you would definitely enjoy it!

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  8. I think the way that she created and sustained his voice is just remarkable. And if the jury could recognize Kingsolver's male narrator in The Lacuna, I could see this year's passing a Bessie to Sid. (But that's not an informed prediction; I haven't read the other shortlisted books yet!)

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    1. Well I certainly enjoyed this one more than The Lacuna! It would be a worthy winner, but I'm still pulling for State of Wonder or Painter of Silence.

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  9. Just wondering if you'd like to be in the Library Thing Orange Prize Shadow Jury. I know you've read all the titles, so your input would be fantastic.

    Here's a thread on the topic:

    http://www.librarything.com/topic/137112

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    1. Thanks for organizing this venture, Michelle!

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!