Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues is a novel that bleeds the cool confidence of a jazz soloist, while channelling the soul of a classic blues singer. And it has already been shortlisted for both the Scotiabank GIller Prize and the Man Booker Prize.

Half Blood Blues follows the Hot Time Swingers, a prominent group of Afro-American, Jewish, German and Afro-German Jazz musicians, from Berlin to Paris as they try to flee the persecution of Hitler’s reich.

The novel is told from the perspective of Sidney Roscoe Griffiths a.k.a. Sid, the Swinger’s largely unremarkable African American bassist. Amongst the Swingers is a young black man known as Hiero, who may well be on his way to becoming the next Louis Armstrong.

Ultimately Hiero’s story and the struggle for multi-ethnic identity is told from Sid’s clouded, imperfect and painfully human view.

Edugyan embraces this biracial theme most strongly in Hiero’s tumultuous past. His father was a black French colonial soldier and his mother, a white German-national. Born on the Rhineland, a contested strip of land between France and Germany, Hiero is considered neither a French or German citizen.

It almost seems too convenient at times that the Swingers are undesirables in the eyes of the German government. But while Half Blood Blues occasionally straddles the realm of plausibility, it never quite teeters into unbelievable territory.

More realistic, however, is Sid’s complicated, layered character. At times he can be seen as jealous and thoughtless, but he can also be fiercely loyal and almost painfully honest.

Even if he is an unappealing person, Sid is perhaps one of the most well developed characters in the book. Hiero, although not perfect, is cloaked in enough intrigue and mystery to keep the reader distanced from him. And Sid’s conflicting feelings towards Hiero also make this distance all the more obvious.

At times it can be frustrating to be so far removed from one of the more mysterious characters in Half-Blood Blues., but it’s this distance is a part of what makes Hiero so interesting. Edugyan allows Hiero’s music to speak more to his development as a character, rather than information about his past.

Half Blood Blues’ descriptions themselves are also absolutely wonderful. Edugyan somehow manages to create passages that bring out the grimy, worn down emotions of this jazz ensemble.

But when they play, Edugyan manages to bring out the almost religious joy that jazz gives these men. One passage in particular captures these moments of freedom is when Hiero finally plays with Armstrong.

Sid notes that, “Hiero thrown out note after shimmering note, like sunshine sliding over the surface of a lake, and Armstrong was the water, all depth and thought. Not one wasted note . . . left just the two golden ropes of sound to intertwine.”

This is jazz. And this is why Half Blood Blues deserves all the attention it has received. Much like Sid himself, Half Blood Blues is intensely stimulating, despite its flaws, and a must read for 2011.

— Photo courtesy of TheManBookerPrizes