In the 1920s and 30s there was a hint of a better world to come, for the working man. The proletariat was in power in Russia, while union-busting and despair at the state of capitalism was prevalent in the Western world. The Knife Sharpener’s Bell examines the fortunes of a family from Manitoba, originally from the Ukraine who decide to go back. Not many people immigrated to the New World and then back to the Old, but Annette’s mother is miserable in Winnipeg and pines for her native Odessa. Her constant nagging finally results in Annette’s father filing for immigration and the Russians accept them back into the motherland. However, all is not as rosy in the Promised Land. There are small unsettling signs, such as their nationality being marked as ‘Jew’ on their passports, despite the official abolition of anti-semitism in the Soviet Republics. Annette has to learn the Cyrillic alphabet and is branded as the Western outsider, who has to work harder just to be accepted. World War II breaks out and the Rumanians invade Ukraine, forcing Annette to flee to the safety of Moscow.
The book shows us the travails of being a Jewish person in Canada and under Stalin’s Russia in the years leading up to the second World War. Rhea writes very well, with her characters having a depth that makes them all too believable. The Soviet society of the time is examined in terms we are familiar with: large department stores catering to rich foreigners, people urged to betray their neighbours for ideological brownie points, the massive machinery of the NKVD that moved to suppress dissent and incarcerate dissenters, the outpouring of love for Stalin and so on. A good book with many parts that will move you, while giving you a glimpse into the life of a family that moved back into the belly of the beast.