A combination of my favourite things: stories and blues, although some people would say they’re the same thing.
This is story by Esi Edugyan looks at the history of Africans and African Americans in Germany pre-world wars. There had been a black presence in Germany for at least a couple of hundred years, though the numbers were smaller than in the UK. They were a big part of the jazz scene in Europe at this time and Germany had a crazy scene that people from all over the world joined in. It was a totally decadent time and Berlin was the place to be.
Sid Griffiths, our narrator, tells us the story of Hieronymous Falk, or Hiero, a mixed race teenage boy who joined their jazz band in the thirties, just as jazz was banned. The decadent times were over for most people. Hiero also happens to be a genius trumpeter. Its getting dangerous for them and tensions increase as Hiero and Sid both fall for Delilah, a mixed race singer who is tight with Louis Armstrong. Another American in their band, Chip, pushes them to leave the country while their white member has to stay behind and play a different type of jazz for Hitler’s commanders.
The band escapes to Paris and goes into hiding, though Sid and Hiero take a chance to go out in the daytime after a particularly heavy drinking session. Hiero is arrested by the Gestapo while Sid escapes. It is thought that Hiero was sent to a concentration camp and dies.
Sid and Chip get out. Years later, a lot of years, Hiero has been rediscovered and his genius acknowledged. Sid and Chip are sought out as they played and recorded with him. There’s a concert and a documentary made about Hiero, and then comes the big reveal.
This is a great premise, and has all the elements for an amazing story, but I don’t think it quite lived up to what it could have been. The pacing was slow in some places and other key areas were skimmed over when it really needed unpacking.
I’m glad I read it, and I’m looking forward to Edugyan’s next book as she’s a writer with loads of good ideas, but I won’t read this story again.