Rhea Tregebov’s debut novel opens with a man boarding a train. The setting is Winnipeg in the winter of 1935, and eight-year-old Annette Gershon watches as her Poppa is swallowed by the black beast in the train station. Tregebov plunges the reader into the child’s terror at the prospect of being separated from her father: the train is a metal monster, its shifting black body hissing and snorting, and we are made to feel the scratchy wool of Avram Gershon’s tweed coat, to smell the lingering smoke from his pipe.
This prologue showcases Tregebov’s strengths. The author of six books of poetry as well as a handful of picture books for young children, the Vancouver-based writer’s gifts are for image and the accretion of sensuous detail; these are used deftly to build and deepen character. The ominous image in the novel’s title first appears when Annette is quarantined in hospital with scarlet fever. The clang of the knife sharpener’s bell threads throughout the story, a dark motif linking far-flung countries.
The story of a Jewish family who make the journey from Depression-era Winnipeg to Stalinist Russia – and back again to Canada in the 1950s – the novel is a tale of transport, in all of its diverse meanings: to travel; to be carried away with emotion; to banish.
Some of the book’s early scenes founder, burdened as they are by lengthy passages of family history that bury the narrative. However, once Tregebov settles into Annette’s childhood in Winnipeg, and later, the family’s journey to Odessa, the novel takes off. Annette and her parents are indelible characters. Avram is particularly memorable: a big-hearted delicatessen owner who feeds not only the neighbourhood – mostly on credit – but also the sparrows that alight on his fingertips and head. The Knife Sharpener’s Bell is a compelling story, made memorable by the poet’s eye.