321 pages // Published in 2011 by Picador
Audio version: 11 hours and 9 minutes
Narrated by Kyle Riley
Chip told us not to go out. Said, don’t you boys tempt the devil. But it been one brawl of a night, I tell you, all of us still reeling from the rot . . .
It’s the 1930s and The Hot-Time Swingers, a jazz band of young Americans and Germans, are at the peak of their success. When the Nazis come into power and the band’s activities are drastically restricted, most of them flee Berlin to Paris. Soon, the Nazis are in Paris too and the band’s talented young leader, Hieronymus “The Kid” Falk, is taken into custody and never seen again. Only Sid Griffiths, another band member, knows what really happened. When a mysterious letter is sent from The Kid to another band member, it’s time for Sid to confront the past and any part he may have played in Hieronymus’ disappearance. Traveling back and forth between Germany as it was in the 1930s and as it is now, the story of The Hot-Time Swingers unfolds.
I can’t believe I waited so long to read and listen to Half-Blood Blues. I watched as this book was nominated for award after award and still didn’t pick it up. I also read some positive and not-so-positive reviews on this. Some of the reviews I read talked about the dialect used in the book. I think any dialect can be hard to read so I bought the audio version to listen to. Then I checked out the book from the library to read while listening.
Sid, the book’s narrator, is a black man who’s so light that he can pass for white and often does while in Berlin. Hieronymus is also black, born in German to a white mom and black dad. He’s been an outsider since the day he was born. Along with other American, a Jew, a German or two, this mixed-race band comes together to play jazz as it wasn’t played before in a chaotic time. It’s what brings this group together but it doesn’t necessarily keep them that way.
I really enjoyed this book. Edugyan writes about a time that’s been written about over and over again but gives it a fresh point of view. I love the historical elements mixed into this tale of love, identity, and jealousy. I had no idea that blacks were treated in different ways from each other in Germany during WWII, depending on their citizenship. If you were black and from another country, you might be detained indefinitely. If you were a black person of German descent, your papers were taken and you were considered stateless, no longer a German citizen.
I felt something just give out in my chest, like my lungs was collapsing. I was breathing real fast, real shallow. Sachsenhasuen. Hell. Not one of us had to ask where that was. A jack could live in a windowless pit and still know the word Sachsenhausen.
I had no idea what Sachsenhausen was or the contradictory ways blacks were treated. Edugyan gives readers this gritty vivid look back at the past in a way that made me feel as though I was there.
Kyle Riley was the perfect narrator. He brought this book to life in the way that only a good narrator can. I started listening to the audio before I started the print version and it was Riley’s voice that kept me going. Unfortunately, Half-Blood Blues is Riley’s first (and only) audio book so far. I hope it’s not his last. My rating on both audio and book: 5 out of 5 stars.