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Half Blood Blues
on 31 May 2011
Charles C. Jones (call him 'Chip' and don't ask what the 'C' stands for) and Sidney Griffiths have been friends since they were kids in Baltimore. They are musicians and they find themselves in Berlin at the start of WWII, along with a band including the exotically named Hieronymous Falk, who is young, amazingly gifted, half German and black. A brawl with some 'boots' as German soldiers are referred to in the book, leads to the band taking up an offer to go to Paris, just before it fell to the Germans. This is easier said than done and the author shows the tension involved at that time, when the authorities had such control over the population. When Paris falls, Hiero is in danger for being German as well as for his colour. Chip and Sid are also black (although Sid, being much lighter, finds it easier to move around without being noticed) and, as US citizens, they have a better chance of leaving the city. When Hiero is suddenly arrested in a cafe, he disappears without a trace.
This book has many intersting themes - friendship, betrayal and, at its core, jealousy. Not only sexual jealousy, but that of someone who lacks musical genius for someone naturally gifted. A large part of the book is set during the fall of Paris, but the story also includes Chip and Sid returning to Berlin in 1992 for a Music Festival, and a mysterious letter that Chip received about Hiero's fate. This trip forces Sid to return to that time and re-evaluate what happened. Although the main action of the book is set during the very early months of the war, the author makes it clear that the musicians had no doubt about what arrest meant - the knowledge that people can easily disappear or be killed is starkly understood. This was a time when the Germans were unbeaten, seemingly able to take cities such as Paris without a fight, and the fear of them is realistically portrayed.
Sid and Chip are extremely funny and likeable characters. You feel that their friendship is strong and, even though they needle each other endlessly, they have a bond that is deep and with a long and shared history. It is always hard to know how you would act in certain situations - jealousy, ambition and resentment are strong emotions and Esi Edugyan evokes them and the time period well. The scenes set when the two men are old are often humorous and bring lightness to a story which could have become bleak in less talented hands, and the dialogue thoughout the novel is well written. This is a remarkable novel and I enjoyed it immensely. I felt that it was extremely realistic and strangely heart warming and recommend it highly, as an original take on a time period which has been much written about.