EVENT Magazine Review - Knife Sharpeners Bell
Reviewed by: Lisa Grekul
The Players, Goose Lane Editions, The Knife Sharpener's Bell, Coteau Books.
In The Players and The Knife Sharpener's Bell, readers are transported to other places and times 17th-century England, in the case of Sweatman's novel, and Depression-era Winnipeg, in Tregebov's. These settings, however, are only starting points for narratives as geographically wide-ranging as they are thematically broad in scope. And while The Players is arguably more challenging-in some ways less accessible than The Knife Sharpener's Bell -readers will glean from both novels the kind of fraught satisfaction that defines memorably fine fiction. **snip -The Players review** by contrast, provides more complexly rendered characters in a finely wrought and heartbreaking exploration of one family's negotiation of the dominant ideological forces of their time.
The novel's central character, Annette Gershon, weaves together two narrative strands: In the first, she is an old woman living in Toronto, looking back on her life, in the second, she is a girl living in Winnipeg with her Jewish-Russian parents. Closer in childhood to her father than to her mother, but deeply influenced by both parents' worries during the Great Depression, Annette finds herself travelling with them back to Odessa, the city from which they emigrated. Her parents' staunch, and apparently naieve, belief in communism serves as the impetus for their repatriation. While Annette's half-brother Ben stays in Canada, she is returned to a family-comprised of both blood relations and close friends-who try to help her adjust to life in the USSR. Annette's coming-of-age is marked by loss-from the suicide of a gentle neighbour in Winnipeg, to the death of her parents as victims in a massacre of Jews in Odessa, to the execution of her daughter's father in one of Stalin's post-war show trials. At the same time, however, Annette is shown tremendous, enduring love throughout her life. Belonging, for her, is a recurring question: Why did Poppa bring me here,' she wonders, not long after arriving in Odessa. Why do I have to learn everything new? I want to be my old self, the one I knew, the one that never changed.' When the safety of the family in Odessa is threatened by German occupation, Annette is sent to Moscow, taken in by her parents' friends, Raisa and Pavel. And she remains in Moscow after learning of her parents' deaths in a massacre of Jews, while Ben, her older half-brother, never gives up hope of bringing her back to Canada. Annette's decision to remain in the Soviet Union for many years becomes a testament less to her own political beliefs or sense of home than to her loyalty to her parents. I told myself I wouldn't betray my parents' decision to believe in the workers' paradise. I couldn't bring myself to give up on their version of goodness, the golden promise at the core of their lives-despite the many things about Comrade Stalin's country that I already knew. The Knife Sharpener's Bell may be more emotionally powerful than The Players because Tregebov has, in part, written from life. Her maternal grandfather tried unsuccessfully to take his family back to Russia in 1935 and one of Tregebov's distant cousins was involved in Stalin's show trials' following the Second World War.
Additionally, Tregebov is a poet (she is the author of six poetry collections, including Remembering History, Mapping the Chaos and The Strength of Materials and her lyricism is present in every sentence of this novel, shaping words in potently evocative ways. Yet it remains obvious through this rich narrative that Tregebov is also an accomplished novelist. The motif of the knife sharpener's bell, for instance, is deftly woven into the narrative, with the sound of the bell foreshadowing doom: It's there, over and over again, swaying in my head.... No way out.... It comes up, into my throat.' Meanwhile, Annette's recurring memory of peeling an orange given to her by her father acts as another motif: I put my small thumb in where Poppa's big thumb made a beginning, work the thick peel loose until it's all gone.' Such finely wrought imagery deftly illuminates fear and comfort, threat and safety, all of which define Annette's existence. As one who seems consistently powerless to resist forces beyond her, whether familial or ideological, Annette bears some resemblance to Lilly in The Players.
Readers of Tregebov's novel will wonder, as Annette wonders herself, if she should have chosen better, if she should have returned to Canada earlier, and if her parents should have chosen differently. By no means unremittingly bleak (as in The Players, the birth of a child becomes a symbol of hope), The Knife Sharpener's Bell is nonetheless a tragic novel, one that raises questions about home, diasporic identity, and the nature of belonging, it is about beliefs and their unfortunate consequences, choices and their devastating aftermath.