x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 September 2017

A jazz era tale that's more than the sum of its part gets shortlisted fo

The author Esi Edugyan adds to the list of Canadians on this year's Man Booker Prize shortlist with her Half Blood Blues.

The author Esi Eduygan.
The author Esi Eduygan.

As if having your novel shortlisted for the UK's Man Booker Prize weren't enough, 33-year-old Esi Edugyan also has a three-month-old baby to contend with. But it sounds like she's coping fine.

"Being a Canadian, I'm fortunate enough to be away from many of the shortlist pressures," she says. "I can only imagine what it must be like for the British writers on the list. Certainly, the birth of our daughter consumes most of my energies. I guess it's a special sort of blessing, having her here to take my mind off the shortlist; it certainly helps to put things in perspective. Very little else matters when a hungry newborn is crying in your arms."

An intriguing delight, Edugyan's Half Blood Blues shuttles between two timeframes: the early years of the Second World War and the experiences of an interracial jazz ensemble in occupied Paris; and 1992, as two of its now-elderly members, Chip and Sid, travel from Baltimore to Berlin for a festival honouring the half-German, half-black German musician Hieronymus Falk who once played alongside them.

Falk is believed to have been killed by the Nazis, who hated both jazz (which they thought of as "degenerate") and mixed-race Germans. But as the eve of their trip approaches, Chip claims to have intelligence suggesting that Hiero may be alive after all.

The book exudes deep fascination with the jazz scene in pre-war Europe - a scene bolstered by itinerant African-American performers seeking respite from the tensions at home. I wonder if Edugyan has always been a fan of jazz and, if so, how much of the historical detail she was already familiar with?

"I grew up listening to my father's jazz records," she says, "and those left a deep and important impression on me. But I'm not a jazz aficionado, not by any means - an amateur admirer, I guess you could call me.

"Hiero's band emerged out of the times themselves, and my research into those times. As the novel grew, so did their musical allegiances. But jazz under the Third Reich had only so many directions that it could go - especially true jazz, serious jazz, jazz that aspired to something greater than just entertainment."

Edugyan grew up in Alberta, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants: she remembers being "one of two black students [if not the only one] in any given school". Her first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, came out in 2004 and won comparisons with early VS Naipaul. When her publisher rejected its immediate follow-up - a book she says she might revisit one day - she considered quitting writing altogether. But she had won places on various European writers' residencies and soon found herself in Germany, where her base became a studio in the grounds of an 18th-century castle near Stuttgart. It was there that Half Blood Blues had its genesis.

Edugyan enjoyed this immersion in an alien culture hugely and raves about how respectful and supportive Germany - indeed, Europe as a whole - is of its artists. At the same time, she doubts she would ever move from Canada permanently.

"There are aspects of Europe I absolutely adore. And I've felt at times a strange sense of homecoming in certain European cities. But I feel and have always felt my strongest sense of belonging at home, in the west of Canada. Living abroad helped me to see that."

The plot of Half Blood Blues turns on an act of betrayal by Sid, who happens to be the narrator. Some critics have queried Edugyan's decision to make such an apparently malign character the prism through which we view the action. But she is unrepentant.

"Sid is flawed but not black-hearted. I think he's misunderstood in the novel as much by his friends and enemies as by himself. So it would come as no surprise to me that he might be misunderstood by readers. I suspect sometimes he's misunderstood by his creator, too. But then, that seems our collective fate sometimes."

More than anything, Half Blood Blues is a novel about friendship and forgiveness - though the dramatic historical backdrop means this has been largely obscured in a lot of the coverage. Edugyan is wary of the book being seen reductively as an "issue" novel about race and Nazism.

"Characters, for me, lie at the heart of fiction," she says. "I don't believe novels should be reducible to messages or morals. Issues or topics can run through a novel without being that book's essential centre. The best fiction should be nearer to life - open-ended and bottomless. I'd be pleased if my novel captured some of that."

Half-Blood Blues is published by Serpent's Tail. The winner of the 2011 Booker Prize will be announced on Tuesday