Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan was the second book voted off of Canada Reads 2014. This novel was defended by Donovan Bailey who is a two time Olympic gold medalist, and still holds a world record for the 50 meter dash. (http://www.cbc.ca/books/canadareads/2013/11/meet-the-canada-reads-2014-contenders.html)
I read this novel last year and, in my opinion, this novel is brilliant. This novel needs to be recognized for its beauty, creative voice and unique story. Half Blood Blues takes place in Paris during the Second World War. Edugyan writes as the voice of an aged black man, Sid, who looks back on his life and reflects on the disappearance of his talented friend Hiero. The story revolves around Jazz music and culture, which is reflected in the musicality of Edugyan’s words. While music is an escape or way of life for these kids, it is not a product of the war but rather of themselves.
While I often find that World War II novels tend to romanticize the idea of life during war, Edugyan seems to have found a way to capture the terror that war actually brought for many people living in Germany and Paris during this time. You find the Canadian voice in the character Delilah a scary, provocative, intimidating, woman from Montreal, Canada. She happens to be a confidante of Louis Armstrong (who also appears in this novel), and an incredibly intriguing character. This story isn’t all well and good—in fact, there are choices our protagonist makes that seem unforgivable. BUT, the voice that Edugyan has found in both a young and old black man is what makes this novel. It’s the words and grammar and spelling – the ‘off-beat’ way of speaking that actually becomes the jazz music. Brilliant.
The theme of Canada Reads 2014 is “What is the novel that could change Canada?”, and while I think Half Blood Blues is a brilliant take on Jazz musicians living in Nazi Paris, I don’t think it aims to change Canada in an obvious way. This novel points out the flaws of our past, and a hope for a better future, but it does not specifically inspire a change in Canada. One could argue as Bailey did, that Half Blood Blues focuses on racial profiling, which is incredibly relevant today—but given that all the other novels still fighting for the Canada Reads 2014 title directly relates or take place in Canada, this novel seems “too far removed from social change in Canada” (Samantha Bee, who is defending Cockroach).
While this novel did not win this competition, if you like jazz music, poetry and a brilliant story—read this novel.