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When we first meet George Washington Black, he is a field slave at the Faith Plantation, Barbados. The Plantation is taken over by Erasmus Wilde, a cruel and vindictive master who treats his animals with more respect than his slaves. Thus begins a well-told but fairly routine slavery+cruelty story. Then Washington’s fortunes change when Erasmus’s brother Christopher comes to stay. He is an idealist and inventor; he needs an assistant to help him build a giant balloon in which he hoped to cross the Atlantic. He is invited to live with Christopher, to call him Titch, to eat fine food and speak his mind. Wash struggles to accept these freedoms, perhaps mindful that they only exist as long as Titch is prepared to let them exist. Then a paradigm shift and we are with Titch and Wash aboard a trading ship plying its way to Virginia. The captain and medic seem somewhat nonplussed to have given refuge to an obvious runaway slave. We have a historic maritime novella, reminiscent of Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea or Ian Maguire’s The North Water. It is well done and there is a sense of menace and tension. Then we have a stay in Arctic Canada looking at marine life. Then on to Nova Scotia where Wash finds romance but lives in fear of recapture. Then to London, trying to engage with Titch’s aristocratic family. Then to Amsterdam. Then to Morocco. [BEWARE - POTENTIAL SPOILERS] This is a plot driven novel with vivid detail. Esi Edugyan evokes four different worlds in vivid colours. But, the story never quite convinces. The characters don’t have a great deal of depth despite having plenty of action. Even Wash, the narrator, really just feels like an everyman. The main characters all do things for no obvious reason. Why does Cousin Philip shoot himself? Why does he visit Erasmus at all when he has such an unhappy history with the man? Why does Mr Wilde pretend to be dead? Why did Titch walk away from Wash? Why did John Willard keep trying to track Wash when there was no longer a bounty to be had? Why would Erasmus place such a large bounty on a slave in the first place when he thought them no more and no less than livestock? The shifting across different worlds also produced what felt like several different stories with several different atmospheres – almost like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, with only the slenderest of threads to hold them together. And given the issues of character motivation, each subsequent section became slightly diminished. The final section, England (although much of it was in Morocco) felt confusing and didn’t really provide the resolutions it set out to achieve. This doesn’t make Washington Black a bad book. Much of it is compelling, visceral. It is never less than readable and the progression from Barbados to the sea to Canada to England to Morocco is innovative for a 19th Century historical novel. There is something steampunk about the ballooning; the slave section is as good a slave narrative as any; the journey at sea is rollicking. There is an air of menace and tension through much of the novel - although this starts to dissipate in Nova Scotia and is gone by London. There is a sense of how a black person might have fitted in to various different communities. There are questions about the nature of freedom, particularly when bound by societal expectations, station of birth, and the threat that freedom might be taken away. But there is an abiding sense that this has fizzled after a really stunning first half. How does that all stack up? Being generous, perhaps four stars. ****0
Half Blood Blues carries a tremendous sense of time and place. That being - the jazz clubs of Berlin and Paris at the outbreak of World War Two, and specifically seen through the eyes of Sid Griffiths, a black American musician. Sid narrates his story in a voice lifted straight from the old jazz records of the 1930s. Idiosyncratic, smoky and fused with a passion for music. Sid and his crew - Chip C Jones, Hieronymous Falk and the delightful Delilah - are not political beings. Sid and Chip, as Americans, look at the ongoing political developments with a certain detachment. They fear the Nazis - or "boots" as they are called - but still concentrate more on food, drink and chasing the ladies. And as Sid reminds us, life back in the US was not a bed of roses for black musicians. The intrigue comes in the shape of the German musicians who join them. These include Paul, a Jewish pianist; Ernst, a white Aryan with a wealthy father; and Hiero, a German citizen of African heritage. Whilst the Nazis were ambivalent towards Sid and Chip, they were far less tolerant of their own nationals who chose a bohemian jazz life and positively apoplectic at the prospect of Jewish jazzers. As the band play cat and mouse with the boots, flitting across borders with false papers in the dead of night, there are opportunities for great courage - and opportunities for base betrayal. With the wine and women in play, there's mayhem. This is set in relief by scenes set shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as a documentary maker seeks to narrate the life of Hiero. Hiero's brief life as a trumpeter had left a legacy of almost mythic proportion. Sid and Chip are invited along as bit part players. This gives them the opportunity to reunite and reflect on past deeds and it's not always pretty - old men transported back 50 years to relive their petty squabbles. Although the narrative can be confusing at first - it's not always linear and the colloquial language does take a bit of tuning in - it gels into a wonderful, complex whole. There are moments of comedy - none more so than the ban's appearance at Ernst's father's chateau. The old man is a high ranking Nazi with pretty conservative musical tastes. He clearly doesn't approve of the jazz lifestyle, and nor does he approve of his son's choice of company. But at the same time, he is compelled to display impeccable manners as the host and he oozes a self-confidence that only a true believer could ever dare. Then there's Louis Armstrong's cameo - holed up in bed in a dingy room in Montmartre, convalescing. He is not a good patient and delightfully to the point in getting what he wants. And finally, the ending is as powerful and weepy and you could hope. The characters are real and deep. They have a story which exists above and beyond the Deutsches Reich setting. Their fierce loyalties and passions tell their own story, regardless of the backdrop. But the backdrop is of interest too - it tells the true story of those foreign or stateless people who found themselves caught up by the war in Europe, whose stories are often neglected by the focus on atrocities on a grander scale. This is an important novel, done very well. Esi Edugyan is a writer of considerable talent. I wish her well for the Booker Prize 2011 and look forward to reading her other work in the future. *****