Review: Giller winner recounts struggles of mixed-race jazz musicians in prewar Europe

Review: Giller winner recounts struggles of mixed-race jazz musicians in prewar Europe

Ottowa Citizen

Julian Gunn

Half-Blood Blues By Esi Edugyan, Thomas Allen, 2011.

I remember waiting for a bus and listening to a literary podcast when I heard that Victoria, B.C. author Esi Edugyan’s second novel, Half-Blood Blues, had made the Man Booker Prize long list. The book had already received strong support: Lawrence Hill, Austin Clarke and other literary figures wrote glowing responses.

The book was subsequently shortlisted for the Booker but lost out to Julian Barnes. It was also shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Writers’ Trust Award. And it won the Giller Prize this week.

Half-Blood Blues binds together disparate human behaviour — celebration, community and violence — in telling the story of a band of jazz musicians struggling to exist in Berlin on the cusp of the Second World War.

American and German, dark-and light-skinned, gentile and Jewish, the members map complex racial and national identities. The musicians aren’t targets only because of their skin colour or religious identity; they’re also playing “degenerate” music, according to the SS. That’s a double whammy…

…Hiero is Hieronymus Thomas Falk, a German citizen with a Rhinelander mother and an African father whose precise story shimmers elusively in the history of colonialism and war. “He was a Mischling,” Sid explains, “a half-breed.”

Sid himself is “straight-haired and green-eyed” and light-skinned enough to pass, but ambiguously: “a right little Spaniard,” he says wryly. Though he’s a foreigner, he’s often safer than his friend in Hiero’s own country. Hiero, Delilah and Sid move through a shifting triangular relationship where music plays as important a role as love….

Read the entire review here.

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