When I joined the book club, I didn’t expect to like all the selections. I welcomed the challenge of cross-reading and hoped to discover books I would not normally pick up on my own.
This month’s selection, however, disappointed me. In fact, I was unable to finish reading it. Among the other members, three enjoyed it immensely, two had lukewarm reviews and one other woman read only half of it.
The discussion was a lively one. The fans of the book praised the author’s use of dialect and enjoyed the references to jazz music, while the rest of us found the German-American slang tiresome and thought some of the characters were not fleshed out enough.
The book, in question: Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan. Winner of the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Man Booker Prize Finalist 2011. Shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.
The storyline is a compelling one.
In 1939, an interracial jazz band called the Hot Time Swingers has been forbidden to play in Berlin. After the Nazis deport the Jewish piano player, the other members—Chip, Sid, Hiero—flee to Paris. There, they meet and audition for Louis Armstrong. While at a café, Hiero is arrested. The young twenty-year old son of a French African solder and white German mother is considered a despised Rhineland bastard. And to make matters worse, he does not have a visa.
As the novel alternates between the war years and 1992, we learn more about the relationships between the three band mates: the pettiness, jealousies, treacheries and split-second decisions that cannot be taken back.
While I did not enjoy the book, I was fascinated by Esi Edugyan’s writing journey. Unable to find a publisher for her second novel, she considered abandoning writing and perhaps, studying law. But first, she accepted residencies in Iceland, Hungary, and France. While living in Germany, she immersed herself in the culture and was inspired to write Half-Blood Blues. It was first published in the United Kingdom and later picked up by Porter Books in in Canada. After that publishing company closed its doors, her agent found a new home for the novel with Thomas Allen.