From My Bookshelf ~ Featuring Esi Edugyan and Celeste Ng


by Lynn Willoughby

Half Blood Blues ~ Esi Edugyan

This novel won many, many awards and nominations for one of the best books of the year (2011). I must have missed something.

It jumped around a lot in time and location. However, the gist of the story is that in Paris in 1940, twenty year old Heiro Falk, a rising star in the jazz scene, is arrested in a café and never heard from again. He was a German citizen. He was black.

The story teller is Sid, Heiro’s bandmate and the only witness to the day’s events. He too was very young. He was Heiro’s bandmate, and has a demo recording of the day that he had picked from the garbage can after Heiro discarded it. As it turns out, all the demos that Heiro had scratched and thrown out were retrieved by someone and over the decades resulted in a significant cult following.

Fifty years after the arrest and breakup of the jazz group, drummer Chip Jones convinces Sid that Heiro is alive and there is to be a festival in his honour in Germany. They go to Europe for Sid to come to terms with the past.
But like most memories, nothing is quite what Chip or Sid remembered. And as Chip publicly accuses Sid of being complicit in Heiro’s arrest, their friendship falls apart. The revelation leads both to re-examine events that are more than half a century old.

The novel is written in patois, there are many references to jazz, jazz musicians, jazz styles and how it was perceived by the Nazis, especially as most of the musicians and singers were black.

Friendships are fragile, people become lost or forgotten, guilt tempers our life and the few moments of grace we have are lost in a world of hatred – both past and present.

  • The Second Life of Samuel Tyne

Everything I Never Told You ~ Celeste Ng

“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet…” so begins this novel about a mixed race family in the 1970s, living in Ohio.

James and Marilyn Lee have three children – Nath, Lydia and Hannah, but the middle child who has inherited her mother’s blue eyes and her father’s black hair, is the favourite – the one the mother pins all her lost hopes and dreams on. Marilyn wanted to become a doctor, and she is determined Lydia will become one. All her gifts to Lydia are books, once she gave her a stethoscope, and increasingly more difficult scientific books. She demands that Lydia take advanced physics during the summer, that she win the science fair every year, that all her homework be completed before she does anything fun on a weekend. The other two children don’t even seem to be on her radar.

James, on the other hand, remembers his lonely years as a student, and insists that Lydia have a social life. He buys her dresses off mannikin’s as they must be what all the girls are wearing, he insists that she attend school dances, where Lydia miserably wonders how soon she can get him to pick her up.

This debut novel has many themes; many layers. It is troubling on every front. Do the Lees completely forget about Nath and Hannah? Do they really believe Lydia is chatting and laughing with friends on the phone, when no friends actually come to their house? Why do the adult Lees have not friends?

Ng’s prose is well done and the characters are three dimensional, especially Hannah. But every one is heartbreaking. Yes, we are all products of our past: while Marilyn wants Lydia to stand out, James wants her to fit in.

There is a fair bit of history about how James’ father immigrated to America under a false name (a ‘paper” son), who had to be related to someone already in America because of the ban on Chinese immigrants. (Canada didn’t do any better – we imposed an impossible to pay head tax).

There is a huge racial impact on the entire family – from James not achieving tenure at Harvard, to misery at school for all three children, to people on the street pulling the corners of their eyes down and calling everyone names.

This novel is really more about family than about Lydia’s death. It deals so well with the pressures parents put on their children, sibling rivalry, parents making assumptions because they want it to be so, about children who never feel wanted or secure. Only one character is ever really aware of what is going on in that household, or who is doing what. It is a wonderful first novel.

Who Knew?

Angel Island was the “Ellis Island of the west”, processing mostly Asian immigrants, off the coast of California. On Ellis Island, immigrants were processed within hours or days, but on Angel Island they spent weeks or months. It was essentially a detention centre where almost 70% of detainees were Chinese.