The Sun Times Review - Knife Sharpener's Bell

Reviewed by: Andrew Armitage

Novels explore the tough side of growing up

Of all the genres of fiction, the coming of age story seems to be the most used and abused. Over the past decade, I have encountered dozens of tales of growing up, usually narrated by losers and loners speaking in the voice of Holden Caufield, J. D. Salinger's archetypal character in The Catcher in the Rye.

I've read six such novels during the past publishing season. Three were so bad that I won't even mention their titles. That leaves a trio of noels narrated by young females, wise beyond their years.

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Now, for a coming-of-age story with a difference. Rhea Tregebov was born in Winnipeg and now lives in Vancouver where is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of British Columbia. The Knife Sharpener's Bell (Coteau, $21.00) is her debut novel - and what a story she tells.

When the novel begins it is 1932 in the North End of Winnipeg. Annette Gershon is nine, a bright but anxious child with more than her share of fears - including the sound of the knife sharpener's bell on the streets of her neighbourhood. Mother and Dad, who immigrated from Czarist Russia, are having a difficult time during the first years of the Depression.

Bolshevik sympathizers, they decided to return to the Soviet Union, settling in Odessa. With part of her family slaughtered during the Second World War and a repressive Stalinist government sending its citizens to Siberia, Annette comes of age in a tragically difficult time.

Narrated decades after the events in the novel by an aging Annette now living in Toronto, the tale has actual roots in the repatriation of many Russian-Canadians to the Soveit Union in the 1930s. It's a heartbreaker, a story of poverty, injustice, bitterness and disillusionment. And with this debut novel, we are introduced to a new voice in Canadian fiction, one that I look forward to when her next novel appears. 

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