Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan tells the story of Sid Griffiths and a handful of jazz musicians who find themselves on the cusp of success at the beginning of the Second World War. Spanning decades, we see the story through Sid, who carries guilt with him like a disease only letting go of it at the very end of the novel when friendship and forgiveness meet in the mutual appreciation of art.
Insecure Sid and the devilish Chip Jones, lifelong friends, find community in Black, German-born Hiero Falk, and the sexy Delilah Brown with her “thick, strong rope” of a voice. Young Hiero is fragile and vulnerable. He relies on Sid to translate for him and Sid becomes like a father figure to him, but Sid is envious of Hiero, of his relationship with Delilah and his ability to play jazz. Eventually, because of their budding success, they are asked to play with Louis Armstrong, and Sid, feeling the pressure of the gig, is so nervous he doesn’t play to his potential and loses the opportunity. Soon after, while out one night in search of milk, Hiero is arrested by the Boots.
Decades later when Sid and Chip are in their eighties they attend a documentary on Hiero’s life, and Sid learns, despite the rumours that Hiero had died young, that Hiero is actually alive. After much agonizing, Sid manages to confess to Heiro about what happened that night fifty years prior.
Sid’s love for jazz collapses from envy, sadness, and guilt, and the moment when the blind, gentle Hiero graces him with his forgiveness, is the moment when he finally absolves himself of that guilt. Edugyan’s novel is like no other novel I’ve read in that it shows how art and our appreciation of art can be war-torn just like a country. Her writing is ripe and delicious, brazen and authentic. These characters, like so many people who lived and died during the Second World War, will not be “lost in the dark maw of history.”