In 1992, Sidney Griffiths and Chip Jones are traveling to Berlin, Germany together to attend a jazz festival honoring their former band member Hieronymus “Hiero” Falk, who was arrested in a Paris café in 1939 and never heard from again. While in Berlin, Chip shows Sid a letter he has received that seems to indicate that Hiero is still alive, living in Poland. The two friends decide to find out if there is any truth to this.
During the trip to Germany and then Poland, Sid remembers the time he spent in Nazi Germany. He and Chip were both part of a jazz band called Hot-Time Swingers, and Hiero was a brilliant trumpet-player new to the scene, which was considered degenerate by the Nazis. After one of the band players gets arrested and another one voluntarily leaves the band, the remaining musicians flee to Paris and stay with Delilah, a jazz singer they met in Berlin. While they are in Paris, France declares war against Germany, and Paris is eventually taken over by the Nazis. In this tense atmosphere, we get to see the passion, friendship, love, and jealousy that play off the members of the band against each other.
“We sort of fell into exhausted silence, and I glanced over at the kid. Hope eats at you like a cancer, I guess. If we just left Berlin sooner, I was thinking, if we just tried harder for old Ernst, for Paul. If we just been better men.”
This book wasn’t quite what I expected. The blurb on the cover led me to believe that this book would explore the experience of black Germans under the Nazis. (This would be Hiero, the son of a white mother and black father.) While I felt this angle was a little lacking in the book, I found a gripping story about the interpersonal relationships of a once tight-knit jazz band.
The story is written from Sid’s point of view and switches between the present-day trip to Germany and Poland and flashbacks to the time in Berlin and Paris. Sid might be the least talented member of the band and while he admires Hiero’s innate talent, he is also jealous of it.
“I admit it, he got genius in spades. Cut him in half, he still worth three of me. It ain’t fair. It ain’t fair that I struggle and struggle to sound just second-rate, and the damn kid just wake up, spit through his horn, and it sing like nightingales. It ain’t fair. Gifts is divided so damn unevenly.”
On top of this charged relationship, he is also the one person who is there when Hiero gets arrested in Paris. He has refused to talk about this event, and he is very reluctant to even think about it until he is forced to confront his feelings half a decade later. The setup of the book works very well, and the back and forth between past and present keep the tension alive. The vernacular language used throughout was a refreshing change from the books I’ve recently read.
I liked that Sid was a flawed character, and his reluctance to remember and his guilt about what happened make him an interesting narrator. It certainly kept me on my toes that I had to keep revising my idea of Sid and Hiero’s friendship based on what Sid was remembering at different points of his journey. I wish that the other characters in the book had been equally well drawn. I had no problem with the mysterious air that surrounded Hiero, since I was looking at him through Sid’s eyes, but I never quite felt like I really knew what made Delilah so special. But otherwise, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.
Half Blood Blues has received several rewards and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Price and the Women’s Price for Fiction. All accolades are well deserved.