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
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