Sid Griffiths is a “dependable” bass player who, with his old neighborhood friend Chip Jones from Baltimore, was part of a jazz band in the cabaret scene in pre-Nazi Berlin. Now that “the Boots” have taken over, Sid, Chip, and their brilliant half-German, half-African trumpet player, Hieronymous Falk, flee to Paris. They meet up with Louis Armstrong there, and Armstrong and Hiero work together to cut a recording, creating a sound that “was the old Armstrong and the new, that mature distilled essence of a master and the boy he used to be, the boy who could make his glissandi snap like marbles, the high Cs piercing.” The Germans arrive in 1940, and arrest the paperless Falk.
The book travels back and forth between 1992, when Sid and Chip are invited to Berlin as special guests of a Falk Festival. The two take a side trip to Poland, to check out whether a letter from the long disappeared Falk might be real, with the implication that he survived the concentration camps.
Even seeming diversions are meaningful – like the cat they find living in their hiding place’s walls in Berlin. When the men leave, they put the cat back into the walls, “it was either that or the streets.” Edugyan’s characters are tragic and absolutely believable, and she compellingly unpeels the layers that Sid hides behind. He is revealed first as a self-centered loser (not just an innocent victim) and finally as a tragically blind man, always hiding his woundedness.
Half-Blood Blues was the winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize (the literary prize for Canadians, with a $50,000 purse), and shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. The honors are deserved; it is a beautifully executed, dark and jazzy masterpiece. Recommended.