I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
The aftermath of the fall of Paris, 1940. Hieronymous Falk, a rising star on the cabaret scene, was arrested in a cafe and never heard from again. He was twenty years old. He was a German citizen. And he was black. Fifty years later, Sid, Hiero's bandmate and the only witness that day, is going back to Berlin. Persuaded by his old friend Chip, Sid discovers there's more to the journey than he thought.
This is an extremely well written book—not surprising, I guess, since it was nominated for both the Man Booker and the Giller prizes. It took a period in history (the Second World War) that I care very little about and an aspect of that war that had never impinged on my consciousness (the Black experience of that war) and made me care very much indeed.
The story is told by Sidney Griffiths, a black jazz musician who is performing in Europe as the war is beginning. Sid is not a very likeable guy—he’s extremely jealous of any one more talented than him and is always looking for an angle to push himself forward. For me, he is a perfect example of not needing to love a main character to be interested in what happens to him and his cohort of fellow musicians. Maybe one of the reasons that I continued to care about Sid was the comparison to his life-long friend, Chip, another seemingly amoral character always looking for a way to advance his interests. Most of the time, Chip drags Sid along with him, although he’s not above dumping Sid if it becomes obvious that his pal will be a hindrance. Sid seems to do the advance planning for the group and is often on the hook for coffee or lunch bills—he can’t escape his feelings of responsibility.
I think the main reason that I continued to care about Sid was his obvious humanity. I don’t know about you, but I’ve felt competitive, I’ve been jealous of someone who could do a better job that I could, I’ve found myself unwillingly plunged into “friendship” where I’ve felt used, and I’ve been spiteful. All the sins that Sid commits, I can envisage myself committing too. And by book’s end, we realize that Sid really does care about some of the shenigans that he has pulled—enough that he confesses to them and looks for forgiveness, an admirable act of bravery, and something that I question whether I would have had the fortitude to do in similar circumstances.
Ms. Edugyan makes you feel the oppression, taste the dust, tense with fear, and long to hear the jazz that these men perform. By happy accident, I heard an interview with Herbie Hancock the same day that I finished Half Blood Blues—and I am going have to check out some jazz in the near future.