Hittin’ the High C: Half-Blood Blues by Esi EdugyanPosted: January 20, 2012
Once upon a time, many months ago, a brilliant thought came to mind about how I was going to revolutionize the world of literature: I was going to find a way to write music. I don’t mean write notes out, like on sheet music. I mean that I was going to find a way to make writing transcend the boundaries of words on page and actually, in the reading, evoke sound. I should add that I was not on any sort of uppers or hallucinogens when this thought came to me. I just felt strongly that this was going to be the best new thing to come to writing and that I was the person who was going to do it.
This occurred to me while reading a book (I can’t remember which) where the author was describing a song, some kind of folk tune the whole village knew by heart type-of-thing. And as with many books I’d read before it, the lyrics were just written out, stanza by stanza, in italics, and preceded by some description like “it was a lilting, haunting tune”. And, not for the first time, I skipped through this whole section of the book, every time it occurred. Like I was supposed to all of a sudden “get” the tune in my head and understand how the song went, just because it was written out in italics. (Can you sense my frustration?)
Well, folks, I’m thrilled to say that somebody beat me to it (phew…what a load off). Esi Edugyan’s new novel, Half-Blood Blues, and winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, has captured the very essence of jazz music in such a way that I find myself a bit shaky as I sit here writing this, still thrilled from having finished it only moments ago. The story is about a band of black Jazz musicians in Germany at the outset of WWII, about how they are forced out of Germany because they are 1) black, and therefore race polluters and 2) jazz musicians, and therefore music polluters. They flee to Paris for safe haven, only to be followed on their heels by the Nazis who invade months later, forcing them to flee again except they can’t escape so easily now because one of their group, the Kid and the next big thing on the trumpet since Armstrong, is German, and is now a hunted man on both sides.
The plot is beautiful–intricately woven, back and forth, up and down, drawing me in even though at first I was reluctant, not really understanding where it was going. But my feeling is that the plot was the subplot, and the real star of the book is the music. I could swear at times when I was reading, and not even reading about their band playing, that I could hear music in the back of my mind, like a soundtrack for the book existed somewhere in between the blank spaces on the page, just jumping into my head. It was unreal.
Everything Edugyan describes has a musical quality to it. Like Delilah’s laughter, the girl amongst the boys who drives Sid, the main character, batty with desire: “She laughed, soft, unexpected. It sound a little like stepping down a river bank, through the soft reeds, like air bending and lifting some green thing.”
And her way with dialogue, handling the Baltimore accent with such care so as not to make the reader stumble over it, creating a sort of universal language so that at times, you don’t know whether the characters are speaking in German or English–you don’t need to know.
But not until now, and I expect I won’t again for a long time, have I ever read words that were music. And it goes a little something like this: “The music should’ve sounded something like a ship’s horn carrying across the water – hard, bright, clear. The kid, hell, he made it muddy, passing his notes not only over seas but through soil too. Sounded rich…He talked to us like he begging us to listen. He wailed. He moaned. He pleaded and seethed. He dragged every damn feeling out that trumpet but hate. A sort of naked, pathetic way of playing. Like he done flipped the whole thing inside out, its nerves flailing in the air. He bent the notes, slurred them in a way made us play harder against him. And the more we disagreed, the stronger he pleaded.”
I could say a few more things about how at some points the plot slowed down, making me lose focus and drift off. I could also say that at times I wasn’t quite sure what was going on, I didn’t get it. Because all of that did happen in the reading. But I realized about half way through that, as with jazz itself, the more I tried to make sense of it, the less I understood. So I let go and just went with it. And man, what a ride it was.
Whether you are looking for Canadian fiction (at its best), historical fiction, jazz fiction, or just something to break you out of your stale, reading rut, I cannot sing this book’s praises enough.