‘Half-Blood Blues’ and the Imperative of Voice


“Chip told us not to go out. Said, don’t you boys tempt the devil. But it been one brawl of a night, I tell you, all of us still reeling from the rot — rot was cheap, see, the drink of French peasants, but it stayed like nails in you gut. Didn’t even look right, all mossy and black in the bottle. Like drinking swamp water.”

The above passage opens Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues, the Man Booker-shortlisted and Giller Prize-winning historical novel about a group of African-German jazz musicians in 1940’s Paris.

Novelists often take great effort to grab the reader from the opening sentence or paragraph (usually both). Sometimes this is done through the imperative – the Call me Ishmael‘s or See the child‘s  – and sometimes through a startling image (flamingo or not), resonant insight, or promise, be it explicit or implied. But whatever the tactic, too few writers place sufficient trust in their narrator’s voice, the memorability inseparable from a memorable personality. When a voice has a compelling magnetic register, after all, it becomes an imperative all its own.

First sentences are no doubt first steps toward voice, but I’m of the opinion a manuscript shouldn’t be so linear in its composition as to reflect this; no sentence should harden to a clay until the manuscript is complete and itself between hard covers. Because voice is, especially in first-person narrative, the essential webbing which identifies it. More so, truly, than the author’s intellection or gift for beauty.

Edugyan’s work suggests that real voice (separate than the sum of the above-mentioned parts) is a meritorious virtue even among the fiction-writing elite. “Real” meant exactly as it sounds: like a living (or lived, in some cases) personality. I’ve read, on more than a few occasions, spilled milk over the lack of idiosyncratic, authentic narrators; and indeed, if we exclude narrators which read as interpretative of their author, whether narrowly or palpably – and exclude those also which feel mostly like fictions, however engaging – the rarity of real with a capital R becomes a bona-fide vicissitude.

“We talked like mongrels, see — half German, half Baltimore bar slang. Just a few scraps of French between us. Only real language I spoke aside from English was Hochdeutsch. But once I started messing up the words I couldn’t straighten nothing out again. Besides, I known Hiero preferred it this way. Kid hailed from the Rhineland, sure, but he got old Baltimore in the blood. Or talked like he did.”

Unless this idiosyncratic marvel of voice comes to the writer in life by proxy, and therefore fortune, in the form of a real person, it can be incredibly difficult to capture. Yet, the fact of its difficulty does nothing to soften the blow for the majority: great art simply requires greatness. If you’re a writer and you read no consolation into “great art”, I have the unfortunate duty to inform you that there is no other. The stakes may not be absolute (we’re talking the imagined, here) but they are as high as they can get; and – whether or not you know it – yours. (Do you know it?)

This aside, the scratches in large part make the music, in matters of voice. It’s rarely if ever a matter of scintillation; you’re trying to masquerade a “real” person, remember. Linguistically, real people are either the victims or the beneficiaries of their cultural environment, depending how one looks at it, but either way language almost always trends toward the informal – the insouciant and colourful. So, good news there.

It’s not so much the lack of masterstrokes I languish as the lack of appropriate hysterics when they’re made. It’s as essential as inessential gets, and you’d be surprised how essential that is. I’m only a few chapters into Half-Blood Blues and so grateful, already, to be losing my cool.