The Knife Sharpener’s Bell is a novel about a Canadian family, originally from Russia, which returns to the Soviet Union – yes returns. This happened more times than people realize, when the depression was hitting hard. Communism was so respected that in 1932 Will Durant, a writer and journalist, could not get an article about the Ukrainian faminepublished in Harper’s or The Atlantic, because those eminent publications worried about alienating readers.
Now here I have to pause to tell you about the author of this novel, Rhea Tregebov, whose family history includes a story of returnees to the Soviet Union. Rhea is a friend of mine, an accomplished poet and writer of children’s stories. My kids still sometimes mention them. Rhea is also a creative writing prof out at the University of British Columbia.
I hope that her students appreciate her. Rhea has the unique gift of being able to criticise writing while making it sound like praise. I don’t mean that she deals in flattery or half-truths or lies, but that she has a way of putting criticism that is energizing, making one want to roll up the sleeves and get to work. Her criticism magically engages confidence in what has already been done and what can be done with that work. I don’t know how she does it.
Rhea was my mentor in a program for first novels at The Writers’ Union of Canada when I was writing The River Midnight. It was my first novel, and her feedback helped me to bring it up more than a notch. A few years later, somewhere around the third draft of The Singing Fire, I was thinking that I should quit writing and get a job pushing paper. But Rhea’s special brand of encouragement mixed with criticism got me back onto the fourth draft, which involved cutting vast swaths of the novel and starting from scratch…better.
I think that Rhea, in her own unostentatious way, knows everybody who is anybody in Canadian literature. I’m not sure that I’m anybody, but she’s been a gift in my life, and I know in many others.
Her entire ouevre, and there are many wonderful books, can be seen at her website. Have a look and do more – buy.