It's easy to get jaded reading novels that take place in World War II-era Europe. It's like an old can of soda that's been open 70 years: The language is flat and stale, and even the most intense moments just don't pop. We know wartime stories so well that they just can't grip us.
So why couldn't I put down Esi Edugyan's Half-Blood Blues, a new novel set mostly in 1939 and 1940 in Berlin and Paris? First, the subject is unique. It's about serious jazz music in Nazi Germany, made by black and white Americans and Europeans. And Edugyan's novel manages not to become a corny Footloose-in-jackboots (looking at you, Swing Kids).
But the main reason Half-Blood Blues succeeds is Edugyan's language. It's anything but flat, and even when the imagery is familiar, it never lacks vividness. The narrator, Sid, is a black bass player from Baltimore, and his hip, rhythmic slang drives every scene.
When he recalls Kristallnacht, the organized series of government attacks on Jews in German cities, Sid doesn't just remember crunching down the street on broken glass. He describes fire reflecting on the streets, and says, "Here and there, I seen teeth glowing like opals on the black cobblestones."
That voice makes Nazi Berlin and occupied Paris all the more real, even as the history takes a backseat to the story. Not that there aren't interesting historical facts here. For instance, France sent a lot of soldiers from their African colonies to posts in the Rhineland after World War I, and the Nazis then rendered these African-German-Frenchmen "stateless." But rather than being trivia, that's a crucial part of Half-Blood Blues' world. The characters are shaped by events we're familiar with, but in unfamiliar ways—they're complex, gritty, and totally credible. Sid is a mess of guilt, grief, and fear, but he's so human you can't help but root for him.
Half-Blood Blues is a smart, fresh book that lets history happen around it. Edugyan renders the historical setting so expertly that she even allows herself the room to play around with that history, like when she brings Louis Armstrong into the story. It's just so rare to read a historical novel and genuinely not know what will happen next. That's how this book succeeds, by convincing you you're learning these familiar events for the first time.