With the announcement of the 2011 Man Booker Prize looming, I’m still trying to work my way through the novels on the longlist that interest me. My sure-fire bet, The Stranger’s Child, didn’t even make the shortlist, which just goes to prove that the judges and I never see eye to eye. That’s fine – I’m not complaining – because even if I can never pick the winner, the longlisting of books I’ve never heard of before means I find new and exciting authors.
Sid Griffiths, Chip Jones, and Hiero Falk – three young black jazz musicians living in Berlin – have fled to Paris to escape the Third Reich, with the help of Delilah, a young American woman. As tends to be the case, however, her presence upsets the fine balance between the three young men, and when Hiero is disappeared from the streets one night, Sid realises he finally may have gone too far.
It is easy, I think, to forget that the Jews were not the only people hunted down and exterminated by the Nazi Party during their reign. Gypsies, disabled people, jazz musicians, gay people, black people – these groups were also rounded up and put into horrible concentration camps. Of course, the setting of the novel is not really the point – if you are looking for a deep and meaningful insight into what living black in Nazi Germany was like, this is not the place. Indeed, Sid and Chip are both American citizens, and Sid, able to pass as white, freely admits he and Chip have less trouble than Hiero, who is a half-black German citizen, a Mischling.
Betrayal and guilt are the overriding themes. Edugyan begins her story in 1939, and we are then yanked into 1992, where someone has invited Sid and Chip to talk about their memories of Hiero for a film. Sid has never mentioned what he did in Paris, and when accusations begin to fly at the screening of the documentary from Chip, he is at first angry, and feels betrayed. It is not until he confronts Chip about the ordeal, and agrees to journey to Poland to meet up with Hiero again for the first time in sixty years, that he begins to think that he shouldn’t be the one who feels upset about any kind of betrayal.
Betrayal is also at the heart of Sid’s relationship with Delilah. Her easy-breezy attitude to life, to music, and to her friendship with Louis Armstrong, has an instant affect on Sid, whose own insecurities about his musical abilities are a stumbling block to his initiating any kind of relationship. Eventually, though, he manages to overcome these, and the two sleep together. It soon becomes clear, though, that Hiero is also deeply enamoured with Delilah, and Sid’s already strong dislike of the kid grows and mutates into a kind of self-destructive jealously. Needless to say, this doesn’t go down very well with Delilah.
Sid is a deeply flawed, and therefore deeply believable, character. Never as good a musician as his two friends, he finds himself surrounded by people who mean well, but never give him the chance to fit into the jazz world. He knows his own limitations, too, and this influences his own growing resentment of Hiero in particular, who is a kid wonder on the trumpet. Add to this the jealously he feels over Delilah’s actions towards Hiero, and Sid becomes almost unlikeable. And while he does become unlikeable, I also found him sympathetic, too. To a certain point, though. There are some things, particularly in Vichy France, that are unforgivable.
The closing scenes with Hiero and Sid ring true. Hiero, despite having lived through many, many horrors, still has a glimmer of the enthusiastic over-grown puppy feeling he had at the age of twenty. As Sid breaks the news to him, tells him that everything that happened is his fault, he simply cannot believe it. These two old men, separated for sixty years, nearing the end of their lives, have a very brief conversation about the past, and while Sid attempts to atone for his past sins, whether Hiero will let him is another matter.
Half Blood Blues uses its temporal and physical setting to great effect. By essentially locking her characters in an abandoned club for half the novel, Edugyan proves her worthiness to be on this year’s shortlist. This is a story about the relationships between men and women, about jazz, and about the decisions we make when under pressure, and the repercussions of these unwise decisions.