The Knife Sharpener’s Bell: Review
by Shawna Dempsey
Tales of immigration to the New World are often told but the return voyages, from New World to Old, are less storied. Likewise, those of us who grew up during the Cold War devoured spy fiction that chronicled daring escapes form the Soviet Union, but there was no literary genre that documented the tale of those who willingly immigrated to Russia to join the socialist revolution. Yet it is precisely this odyssey, one that runs against the stream of dominant cultural narratives, that Rhea Tregebov charts in The Knife Sharpener’s Bell.
The novel explores the little-known history of those who left their homes to participate in building a newly minted Soviet Republic. Told through the eyes of a Winnipeg girl, Annette Gershon, the tale encompasses world events as varied and far-flung as the Great Depression on the Canadian prairies, the massacre of Odessa and the Stalinist Gulag system. Through it all, a profound love for family pulls against dogged and systemic anti-Semitism.
As a child, Annette asks, “Winnipeg. Are there really other places? In the middle of winter, in Winnipeg, it doesn’t seem there are even other seasons.” And yet the impossible transpires. In 1936, the idealism of her parents is strong enough to move her halfway around the globe.
Her frustrations with the Cyrillic alphabet are paralleled by her father’s dismay at Soviet bureaucracy and identification papers that state “Jew” as the family members’ nationality. As committed socialists, the family is entirely secular. However, like victims of fascist regimes elsewhere in Europe, the family’s lack of religious practices and faith are no protection from hatred.
This remarkable novel illuminates a period of history long shielded by the Iron Curtain, as well as the complex relationship between immigration and homeland. It is also beautifully written. The page-turning epic begins in the 1920s in Winnipeg, spends two decades in the Soviet Union, then finds its way back to contemporary Toronto. It is as much an exploration of what is home as it is of history.
And, like many meaningful journeys, after many cliffhanging twists and turns, it leads Annette to herself: “The eye squinting this very moment in the late sun, the hand drawing the façade, toes cramped in their worn shoes. Something mutable and transient but, nonetheless, finally, there.”