Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan is a novel which shines out of the Booker longlist like a splash of light. It tells the story of a group of Afro-German jazz musicians in Paris and Berlin in the 1940s and counterpoints this story with the more contemporary narrative of Baltimore, Paris and Berlin in the 1990s. It is written in vivid, elegant prose, and wears its research very easily, ringing true all the way through. Edugyan handles her material well, structuring the novel as a piece of musical magic. Race, friendship, betrayal and identity come together in unique, fleeting harmonic alliances which rhythmically displace each other, fracturing and delighting the narrative sequences in surprising ways. This is a slightly surreal, deliberately off-kilter, fully realised and darkly beautiful novel.
The reluctant narrator, Sidney Griffiths, has a complex unsettling voice, capable of drawing us into the story and simultaneously inviting us to step back from it and wonder what other stories are shimmering below the surface. What for instance, would have been the story as told by Hiero, the brilliant trumpeter whose shattered narrative is told only in fleetingly beautiful passages, full of passion and soaring majesty, but largely submerged and undisclosed at the tragic heart of this novel.
The snuffed-out ecstasy of shared purpose and creative originality is heart breaking, and this is a novel which makes you cry. Why would you want to read something that made you cry? because it is a way of knowing you still feel. Half Blood Blues alerts us to the things that matter in life, and in story, and revises for us all the things we thought we knew, but never knew so well as we do now. This is a piece of sustained and uncommon beauty, the echoes of which lie in the heart long after the novel is finished.