Book Review

<em>Half-Blood Blues</em> by Esi Edugyan

still working too much; brief notes on celibacy as sexual practice

Jazz.

Jazz Jazz Jazz Jazz Jazz Jazz Jazz.

And Nazis.

For anyone who glances at the premise of Esi Edugyan’s 2011 novel without going further, its exploration of expats in the Weimar-era Berlin party-jazz scene might invite a sneering, misguided, comment about the fact that Isherwood’s Berlin Novels (and, Cabaret, the musical based on them) already did that.

The first point I’d counter this with is that periods of great social, political and cultural upheaval are exceedingly ripe for literary (and other artistic) exploration, and the second is that the perspectives and experiences explored by Edugyan are vastly different. Also, Edugyan’s story is historical fiction, Isherwood’s was, well, fictionalised memoir.

Edugyan wasn’t THERE in the way that Isherwood was, but Isherwood was not there in the way that many other people would/could have been.

Though, yes, Isherwood’s queerness put him on the Nazi’s hypocritical kill list, he was an affluent, white, Englishman (able to keep his shagging secret, which maybe added to the fun1) so therefore would have avoided the immediacy of racially-motivated hate.

This is not the case for the jazzy expats of Half-Blood Blues, who – as black Americans rather than white Englishmen – are very conspicuous in white supremacist 1939 Germany, and then equally so when their place of retreat also becomes a part of the hideous Nazi empire when the Nazis capture Paris.

Edugyan’s novel flits between the story of a popular jazz band in 1930s Berlin and two of the surviving members of said band returning to Berlin in 1992 to attend the premiere of a documentary that has been made about their most influential album. The entry of the past into the present offers a justified propulsion into memory, and we see how the incessant competition between the members of the band impeded their plans to escape certain danger.

In Berlin, and then in Paris, (and then in the interviews recorded 50 years later for the documentary), the musicians compete for acclaim and recognition, they compete for the approval of Louis Armstrong and – of course – they compete for the attention of the same glamorous jazz singer, who may also be the lover of the fictionalised Louis Armstrong.

It’s an emotive novel, richly textured and vivid: I’ve never been to Berlin (which is pretty embarrassing tbh), but I have been to (and partied in) Paris, and the descriptions of wintry Paris in the dead of night when all the bars have closed made me recall some of the more pleasant memories from my mid-twenties.

I’m still crazy busy and working too much, so I’m not going to type much more about this, but Hald-Blood Blues is a great novel and I’d recommend it, to be honest.

Explores sexuality and memory, it explores race and prejudice, it uses unreliable narration and shifts backwards and forwards in time: it does the things that bad contemporary novels do because they mistakenly believe that structure dictates quality, and Edugyan is the kind of writer who gives false hope to those writer, because Half-Blood Blues is a great contemporary novel and it does use those techniques. It isn’t the literary techniques that make this novel great, though, it’s the characterisation, the vividness of descriptions of setting and the emotionality brought into the narrative.

Anyway, I’ve gotta go shave. This is a good one, and I enjoyed it even more than Washington Black.


1. I once knew a (then) young gay man who spent a year in his mid 20s working in either Qatar or the UAE, I forget which, one of the countries where homosexuality is still a capital offence. (Maybe Kuwait?) He spoke gleefully about the “double life” he lived there, the secret handshakes and private clubs and how the clandestine aspect of sexuality was deeply and persistently erotic. Obviously, not every person gets off on this aspect of sexuality, but I imagine that my erstwhile co-partyboy – demographically similar to Isherwood (though probs comparatively richer lol) – might similarly have benefited from the insulation of class, race and sex to keep at bay a fear of the very-real risks of persecution due to his sexuality. To persecute people on the basis of their sexuality is disgusting, unjustifiable and deeply hypocritical, even if promoted by celibate people. I’m now going to give my opinions on celibacy: Celibacy is a chosen sexual practice, in the ways that oral sex is a chosen sexual practice, a hand-job is a chosen sexual practice, etc. To be celibate is a kink in a non-asexual body, and I find it hard to imagine anyone possessing sexual desire but denying themself Flesh not taking some kind of physical pleasure from the continual delay of gratification. According to the internet, there are [find statistic?] asexual people in the world, and the likelihood of these people being the only people to engage in repression as sexual choice (i.e. dogmatically-motivated celibacy) is slim. This is proven, repeatedly, by abuse scandals in religious institutions. These are my thoughts on celibacy.

Download my weird live album via Bandcamp.

Order my raucous poetry collection via Open Pen.

Order my sad prose chapbook via Selcouth Station Press.


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