Fiction beat out biography and essays by a large margin in our reader’s poll to choose the first title in The Globe’s online book club.
The winner is Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan, with 28 per cent of the votes. To take part in our live discussion of Half-Blood Blues with Sandra Martin, click here. Half-Blood Blues was followed by The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt, with 21 per cent, and The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje, at 15 per cent.
This isn’t the first contest Half-Blood Blues has won. Short-listed for several prizes, including the Man Booker and the Governor-General’s Literary Award, the novel won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in November. The judges said Edugyan’s “style is deceptively conversational and easy, but with the simultaneous exuberance and discipline of a true prodigy.”
The novel is about an inter-racial jazz band in swinging, libertine Berlin in the late 1920s. When the Nazis take power, jazz is condemned as the degenerate music of blacks and Jews. Each member of the band has something to fear, including the blonde-blue-eyed pianist and Sid, the light-skinned African-American who can sometimes pass for white.
As the persecution ramps up, the band scatters, with a few members, including black German trumpeter Hiero Falk, heading for Paris and a hoped-for audition with Louis Armstrong. They arrive just as the Nazi juggernaut thunders into France.
The novel, which is political, moral and philosophical, roams back and forth in time and place. It interweaves some of the biggest themes of the past century – racism, anti-Semitism, power-mongering – but it is also about jazz, friendship and the personal jealousies and rivalries that can turn the music sour.
Join me Monday at 11 am EST for a live discussion with publisher Patrick Crean (Thomas Allen) about how this book nearly fell through the cracks before it had a chance to make it into print. And then we will begin our discussion.
FIVE QUESTIONS ABOUT HALF-BLOOD BLUES
(I’ve based them on the first half of Half-Blood Blues in case you don’t finish reading the novel by Monday.)
1. This novel is told by Sid who is remembering events that took place 60 years earlier. Did you have trouble accepting his voice? What do you think of his dialect? Is he a reliable narrator?
2. What did you think of the portraits of wartime Paris and Berlin? Why do you think Hiero insists on leaving the apartment and going out to a cafe even though it is after curfew and he has no papers in Nazi-occupied France? Why does he endanger himself?
3. Sid is downstairs in the toilet when the Gestapo arrive in the cafe. He stays hidden and doesn’t come to Hiero’s assistance. Should he have? What could he have done to help?
4. Chip, the drummer, persuades Sid to return to Berlin to attend the premiere of a documentary about Hiero and their wartime jazz band. In the film he fingers Sid, saying he was jealous of Hiero and Delilah, and that’s why he betrayed Hiero to the Nazis. Does this make sense to you? How does Chip know what happened in the cafe?
5. How would you describe the friendship between Sid, who stopped playing and took a clerical job, and Chip, who continued to play the drums, tour and live lavishly. They have known each other since they were boys. Has their relationship changed in adulthood?