I've said hardly anything about the Orange Prize so far this year. I've been sitting back and watching from the sidelines, resisting the lure of the longlist and staying out of the perennial dogfight about sexism. But now the shortlist is out and I'm back on board with a read-along. I prevaricated about doing it, but then a colleague at work asked me if I would like to host an Orange Prize reader's day with her in June and how could I resist?* Obviously this would mean reading the six books, and I couldn't resist that either. This year's shortlist has grabbed my attention. After a slightly lacklustre showing in 2011, I'm excited to see how cerebral this year's list is. I'm sad and slightly outraged that Ali Smith has been omitted (again!), but thrilled to see The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller there (I already read and reviewed it in November last year). I haven't read any Anne Enright since The Gathering won the Booker Prize but I loved that book and am keen to read more; Patchett, Ozick and Georgina Harding have all be on my TBR for a while.
Which leaves Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan. Of the shortlisted books, this was the one about which I felt ambivalent. It has been sitting on my book shelves for almost 12 months, since last year's Orange Prize in fact. It arrived from Serpent's Tail during the longlist readathon and got pushed to one side. Then it was Book at Bedtime on Radio 4, and then on the Booker shortlist, and then the Giller shortlist, but I still didn't read it. Why? Because it's set during WWII and it's about jazz. As you may remember, I have a very low tolerance threshold for war books. I could go a very long time without reading yet another novel set in Nazi-occupied Europe. Last year's Orange longlisted The Invisible Bridge very nearly did for me. And jazz? I just don't get it. My ear isn't tuned in right; all I hear is randomness and twiddling. I understand that what I'm listening to is pure musicality, improvisational genius, but I still don't get it deep down. So the motivation to read Half Blood Blues wasn't ever very strong. It was the first of this year's shortlisted books that I picked up after the announcement simply because it was sat ready on my shelf.
I've read it quickly (by my standards anyway) in just four days, expedited by a day off sick. What a strangely compelling reading experience it was; not exhilarating exactly, but exciting because of Edugyan's accomplishment. The plotting is achingly simple and the rest is all character, character, character. The book stretches out the personalities of its principles like taffy. Edugyan makes them so thin at times you can see right through them; and then she gathers them back into themselves to make something rich and unfathomable. Afterwards they squat and grow in your mind.
Our narrator is Sidney Roscoe Griffiths - Sid to his friends - an octogenarian double bassist, recounting the story of his experiences in Nazi Berlin and occupied Paris from the vantage of fifty years hindsight. He was in Germany during jazz's golden age in the 1920s and early 1930s, playing with the Hot-Time Swingers. Sid's oldest friend 'Chip' Jones was the drummer - they were both from Baltimore, the African-Americans needed to 'sex up' the German band. Their manager Ernst played the clarinet, and there was Big Fritz on sax. Jewish Paul Butterstein played their piano. And then there was 'the kid' on the trumpet. Hieronymous Thomas Falk: twenty years old and an absolute prodigy, one of God's golden few. The Nazi regime forced the group underground in the late 30s, and in 1939 they fled Berlin for Paris under the auspices of Delilah Brown and her patron, Louis Armstrong. They settled down to cut a record - the record that will make them famous - only for the 'Boots' to invade less than a year later. 1940 finds them waiting anxiously for the arrival of the visas that will allow them to leave the country, but a reckless early morning visit to a cafe leads to Hiero's arrest for 'race pollution' and the dissolution of the band forever. (That isn't a spoiler; Sid recounts the arrest in the opening chapter.)
Falk is a rare thing in 1930s Germany: a 'Mischling' or half-blood 'but so dark no soul ever like to guess his mama a white Rhinelander. Hell his skin glistened like pure oil.' His status in 1930s Europe is increasingly difficult and uncertain. In his native Germany he has been stripped of his citizenship; in Paris he is the enemy. He stands out everywhere and doesn't belong anywhere: 'When Hiero'd cut in with his native German, well, [they] would damn near die of surprise. Most ain't liked it though. A savage talking like he civilised.' Sid is the opposite; he can fit in anywhere. He is 'so light-skinned folks often took me for white. Son of two Baltimore quadroons, I come out straight-haired, green-eyed, a right little Spaniard... this given me a softer ride than some.' Like his bandmate Paul - Jewish, but blond haired and blue-eyed - Sid can 'pass' in a prejudiced society. His difference isn't stamped on his features, although this leads to a problem of a different order: 'we passed, sure' he remembers, 'But there was passing, and there was passing. Sometimes it seemed we'd passed right out of our own skins.' Like Hiero, Sid doesn't always know where he stands in the world or, rather, what he stands for. 'Passing' compromises his sense of identity. Occasionally there is a note of envy in his descriptions of Hiero, of his grave face and 'majestically bony' physique, his blackness 'like a starless night'.
Sid's relationships with those around him are the threads that hold the book together. Following them, untangling them, stepping back and reappraising them is what makes the novel such an intense pleasure. They are fiendishly difficult to riddle out. Chip, for example, is Sid's oldest friend - the pair are still close in 1992 - but he's a player, a hard drinker, an inveterate liar and, on more than one occasion, downright cruel. Their relationship is ambivalent, sometimes hostile, always unequal. Sid characterises it as more addiction than affection:
Don't know what it is about that man. He's like a weakness for me, even seventy years later. I ain't a stupid man, no more than most. And he ain't that damn charming. But it seems we is friends to the last. Why I don't know. The best I can say is that it's like some rundown part of me. I just got this broken switch in my brain, can't say no to Chip Jones.
But it is the triangular relationship between Sid, Delilah and Hiero that focuses the novel's tension. Hiero is always 'the kid' to Sid, and an object of hatred, jealousy, compassion and (almost certainly) love. Unlike everybody else Sid is not convinced by Hiero's musical genius:
He sounded broody, slow, holding the notes way longer than seemed sane. The music should've sounded something like a ship's horn carrying across water - hard, bright, clear. The kid, hell, he made it muddy, passing his notes not only over seas but through soil too. Sounded rich, which might've been fine for a older gate, but felt fake from him...there wasn't no grace. ... He wailed. He moaned. He pleaded and seethed. He dragged every damn feeling out of that trumpet but hate. A sort of naked, pathetic way of playing... I hated it. It felt so damn false, so showy.
When the enigmatic Delilah Brown comes onto the scene, showering Hiero with attention and praise while Sid languishes lovesick for her, his jealousy is towering. He oscillates between feelings of rage and envy, and unexpected flushes of sympathy. The sympathy is a response to Hiero's innate tragedy as a nationless, family-less outcast, gawky and unloved. His desire to be loved, and to be needed, is echoed by Sid's own.
The wild swings of Sid's attitude to Hiero are indicative of his general nature. He feels things powerfully in black and white. He peppers his narration with portents; feelings of darkness and light wash through him in waves and he characterises suspense simply as a 'blackness' hovering over him or sitting in his stomach. It is difficult to tell whether he is trying to create an effect for the story, or whether he actually experiences life in this yo-yo fashion. Either way it signals what an interesting narrator he is. Not because he isn't trustworthy - we surely know by now that narrators can never be trusted - but because he is so very transparent. He is telling the story the way he thinks he wants us to hear it, but he isn't hiding anything. So, although Sid is apparently oblivious to it, it is clear that Hiero adores him, looks up to him, wants to be him or to be with him. (I felt there were some moments when Hiero was being coded as gay, but perhaps I was over reading?)
Edugyan does such a beautiful job with Sid, and Hiero, and the rest, that I didn't yawn my way through the WWII setting. It was a good fit, and almost beside the point. I was almost disappointed that I still didn't like jazz by the end, because I wanted to feel what the characters were feeling about it. But I sort of understood why they liked it, why it was (as Chip so eloquently puts it) a 'damn consolation' for everything that goes wrong in their world. I also understood - and this is why Half Blood Blues has been nominated for all those prizes I think - why it was no damn consolation at all.
*If you live in the York area and would like to join us, information here: www.feelinginspired.co.uk