Gripping new novel looks at how a violent event gives a woman her life

CanLit standout Vancouver’s Rhea Tregebov follows up her hit novel The Knife Sharpener’s Bell with her second work of fiction Rue Des Rosiers


Updated: February 14, 2020

Vancouver writer Rhea Tregebov retired from her teaching job in the UBC creative writing program a few years ago. It didn’t last long.

“I wasn’t really good at being retired, unfortunately,” said Tregebov as she burst out laughing.

So now the associate professor emerita of creative writing and the author of the acclaimed and award-winning novel The Knife Sharpener’s Bell teaches a class or two and advises on thesis work. The rest of her time she focuses on her own writing.

“That was the whole goal. I actually retired a little early even though it’s not mandatory of course anymore, but I retired a bit early because I wanted to take advantage of these years when I am still pretty hale and feisty. I’m planning on putting out a book every week at this point,” said Tregebov, once again laughing. “You may have noticed my last book of poetry was 2012 and my last novel was 2009 so I’m a little slow, but I do really think I will be able to pick up the pace.”

Tregebov, as you may have gathered, is a pleasing mixture of confidence and self-deprecation. She is easy to laugh as you discover just minutes into a conversation, in this case a conversation about her latest book Rue Des Rosiers.

The novel focuses on a young woman in the early 1980s. Sarah is the youngest of three sisters and she just can’t seem to get it together. At 25 she is in Toronto and is aimlessly bobbing along like a leaf in a rainstorm. Her decision-making relies heavily on a lucky coin she flips in her pocket. With no clear path she reluctantly agrees to accompany the boyfriend she doesn’t seem to want on an extended work trip to Paris. It’s there we discover a young Arab immigrant named Laila who is also trying to find out who she is. In the end there’s a life-changing anti-Semitic event that despite it being 1982 seems wholly contemporary to today’s world.

“You know when you grow up in a Jewish family you just assume there is anti-Semitism. You have to deal with it and it’s the air you breathe. It is the water you breathe. You’re prepared for it. You’re braced for it. You’re anxious about it but you are never surprised,” said Tregebov, referring to her own reality and Sarah’s too as kids growing up in Winnipeg in Jewish families.

Laila we learn is trying to escape past trauma and hatred but seems to be right back in the midst of more of the same.

“I’ve said that the book is trying to ascertain the humanity in inhumanity. And I needed Laila as a character in there because Laila is sort of knee-jerk anti-Semitic,” said Tregebov. “Her personal history is tremendously affected by generational trauma. She has never met a Jew and it is out of ignorance that hatred arises.”

While in Paris the two women live different but close lives.

“I love them (Sarah and Laila) going in circles, they keep passing each other in Paris, then they intersect,” said Tregebov.

Despite their obvious differences both women are searching for their own footing. A footing Tregebov said she too was on the hunt for in certain parts of her life.

“I think a lot of women cope with agency. For a lot of women having active agency in their lives is difficult,” said Tregebov, turning her fictional story back toward reality. “I was born in 1953 and believe me that was pre-feminist, right. It was a big leap around 45 and another leap around 50 and it’s funny in the last couple of years something has calmed down in me. I think my existential anxiety has dropped a little bit and I’m not even smoking cannabis to help.”

That room to breathe and the physical time and space to work have Tregebov feeling good about the future of her so-called retirement.

“I feel lucky. I feel lucky and determined. I’m in a wonderful situation now where I really can write full time so I bloody well better be able to take up those opportunities,” said Tregebov. “I think of the time I had a little sick kid and I scrambled around for freelance work and a complicated marriage and I have none of the above right now so I bloody well better take advantage of it.”

Right now Tregebov, who says writing makes her happy, is finishing up her eighth book of poetry.

With her healthy resume of poetry expanding, her children’s picture books and now a new novel on stands it is safe to say Tregebov is someone who thrives on variety but variety in stages?

“I think for a long time I thought of myself as exclusively a poet

“Before I got the cushy job at UBC I edited a lot of novels both for adults and young adults some of those at a very early stage (in the writing) and I got so intrigued by the problem solving involved in writing a novel,” said Tregebov, excitement creeping into her voice.

“It is a little tough to switch gears so right now I am working on a poetry manuscript. You now there’s a different pace. It’s one poem at a time pretty much and the language is a bit different. If I wrote my novels the way I wrote my poetry no one would want to read my novels.”

Luckily for readers she has some compartments she is more than willing to utilize.

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Published On: February 14, 2020Categories: Press, Rue des Rosiers

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