SPG Book Review - Knife Sharpeners Bell

SPG Book Reviews
Reviewed by: Shelley Leedahl

Recommendation: if you buy The Knife Sharpener's Bell by Saskatchewan-born writer Rhea Tregebov, budget your time accordingly, because you'll not be able to put this gripping historical novel down. Where to begin? The plot? The story starts in Winnipeg, 1935, with the narrator, Annette, age nine, reluctantly seeing her idealist father off at the train station. He's returning to Russia, the homeland, because he sees capitalism failing in the west amid the chaos of the Great Depression, and he believes 'a planned economy' is 'the only rational approach, 'because it'll make his shrewish wife happy, and because the Soviet Union is 'a good place for the Jews.' After the visit, he's convinced that his family must make their home in the east. Once back in Europe, however, the parents stay in Odessa and Annette and other Ben continue to Moscow, where it's safer. Except it isn't.

Or perhaps I should speak of the writing: Tregebov's novel is strong. When she paints the scene of Annette in the middle of a war zone, among a river of people trying to get to the safety of the metro station while German bombs explode and buildings crumple, she writes with such precision I can almost taste the choking dust in my own throat. When young Annette joins other women in digging anti-tank ditches, I'm there, too, '[managing] a half load but can barely lift it, my boots sliding in the muck. I can't get a solid enough grip with my feet to fling it off .... the emptiness [opens] inside me.' Or how about character? Imagine a young girl walking around a strange city, Odessa, and thinking about its architecture: how it makes her feel, and how it favourably contrasts with Winnipeg's architecture, where except for the 'ice-cream-cone-turreted Ukrainian church, a building with a sense of humour,' the architecture's unimpressive. And the adult Annette, who says: 'I try not to be a coward more often than necessary' and 'You can make a diet of hope.'

Tregebov, who's had numerous books of poetry and children's literature published, has got style covered, too. I love the elegant sentences, turning on themselves, the repetitions. There's not a word out of place. And structure. The author, a creative writing professor at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, seamlessly weaves between present (Annette as a mother and grandmother) and past, between east and west, between hope and despair. The climax? Absolutely dynamite. When I began this book, I was transported into the dramatic world of Annette Gershon and her family. I went around the world. And in the last few lines, Tregebov gently set me down again, in Annette's contemporary Toronto condominium, watching a new set of young idealists on the TV news, with a new song ('No Blood for Oil').

This is how we stay human, telling each other our stories. Be human. Stay human. Support Canadian writers and publishers. The Knife Sharpener's Bell is breathtaking. It will change you. Or it should.

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