Monday, June 23, 2014

Book Review: Half-Blood Blues

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I am a Libra, and as such, am drawn to balance. I play Devil's advocate to even out an argument. When I review a book I have fully savoured, I am sure to include a few drawbacks, to even out the score. If I were a teacher, I'd never dole out a 100%. There are exceptions to ever rule, and my latest exception is for Esi Edugyan. I am hard-pressed to find a criticism of this novel, I devoured it, relishing in every descriptor, every plot twist, an an ending that came so full-circle I am not hesitant to call it literary genius. Half-Blood Blues lives up to the hype, and there's a lot of hype: It was named Canada's Giller prize winner in 2011, was a participant in CBC Canada Reads, and was short-listed for a number of international book awards. She's a Canadian author (bonus!), and tells a story about WWII-era musicians in a way that hasn't, largely, been narrated.
Her characters are compelling: a bald jazz singer who hangs on Armstrong, a band of wannabe jazz musicians collected in Berlin with shameful secrets, a leader who sells his very soul for the love of music. I don't think you'd need to be a jazz fan to appreciate the underbelly of the scene, but I happen to. I love jazz music, I get it, it is my soundtrack. There is something unspeakably evocative about the music, but Edugyan uses language to illustrate sound remarkably well. I've never seen it done quite like her before. She makes each phrase beautiful and vivid without erroneous words or long, drawn-out descriptions. She writes dialogue the way the musicians would have spoken, (a tool I always like), and employs a confident use of symbolism. She makes me want to be a better writer and hone my craft, while at the same time intimidating the hell out of me-- how could I ever hope to write anything as remarkable, as completely flawless, as this story? She has certainly found her voice, and moved beyond the bull. She is clearly in command as she tells this story, and takes language to places it has never been before. That, I would say, is the marker of a truly talented writer. Not only does she think to combine words in a way that hasn't before been done, she stirs up emotion, appreciation, even worship on her readers' part.
This book would be appreciated by anyone who wants to learn a bit of history, let their imaginations run wild in the dirty behind-the-scenes war-era jazz world, and who enjoys a good, epic tale. I told you the ending was incredibly moving; indeed when I read the second-last chapter, I was so overcome, I actually held my breath and let a few tears fall. I said, "wow" out loud, to my husband next to me. It is spellbinding.
I know I will return to this story again in a few years, once my initial exposure to it has had time to ruminate and mix with more of my own life's experiences, the way a good story does.


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