Jazz under the Nazis, both in Germany and in occupied Paris. Friendship and betrayal in the worst of circumstances, when betrayal can literally lead to death. And then, years later, revisiting those haunts, those people, those betrayals. This is a really amazing book.
It was all the buzz when this book and The Sisters Brothers
were shortlisted for the Booker prize. They then split the two big Canadian prizes - one took the Giller, the other the Governor-General. Readers may recall that I wasn't overly enthralled with The Sisters Brothers
, so by unfortunate association, I was a little worried about this one as well.
I needn't have been. Esi Edugyan has written something pitch perfect. The language, the story, the characters, they all flow so beautifully, and their melodic lines intertwine so effortlessly through past and present, through characters you love, and characters you ache for, through making music at the very worst of times, and having it all fall apart. It's gorgeously done.
Initially a group in Berlin, most of the members flee to Paris, although that flight comes too late for some. Many members of the group are half-blood, in one form or another. One can pass for white, and sometimes done. Another cannot. They are marked by blackness, by outsider status, by being musicians, in a world where being different is punishable by death.
It's also a book about talent, and the pain of having it, and the pain of being merely good enough, while observing genius. About wanting to make a mark, leave one thing behind worth saving, and the lengths you might go to to make that happen.
The interspersing with this tale in Berlin and then Paris with the 1992 stories of two of the old jazz musicians going back to Berlin to a festival for their young bandmate, Hieronymus Falk, now heralded as a lost genius, who died in the camps. Sid, the bass player, his frustration and anger and guilt, all this provides the context for how those years continue to affect his life and everything he does. It's also about how history is remembered and retold and warped and forgotten.
And also, possibly, it is about making amends. But I want to return to her language, both the spoken dialogue of the characters, and her descriptive passages. Both are exquisite. For that alone, you should read this book. That they clothe a powerful story as well make it a book that will last.