Books Without Any Pictures: Review of On the Sickle’s Edge
On the Sickle’s Edge is a multigenerational saga by Neville Frankel that chronicles the story of a Jewish family through the rise and fall of the former Soviet Union. The story of the Shtein family spans many decades and three continents, and provides a glimpse into how ordinary people lived through turbulent periods of history.
The story focuses on three main protagonists. There’s Lena, born in South Africa but transplanted to Russia via Latvia. Her father perseveres through tragedy and persecution, eventually settling in Moscow and hiding the family’s Jewish identity to try to provide Lena and her cousins/stepsisters with a better life. Lena comes of age and finds her first love in Stalinist Russia, and lives through heartbreak again and again. Lena is a survivor, and grows into a tough old woman.
Her granddaughter Darya is a stalwart communist, until Lena reveals her Jewish identity. It forces Darya to question everything she’s believed, but by the point that she realizes that she no longer agrees with the Party, it’s too late–she’s already trapped in an abusive marriage to a sadistic KGB agent, and bears two children. But On the Sickle’s Edge isn’t just a story of tragedy, it’s a story of hope and new beginnings.
Steven is painter from Boston. He’s a distant relative, descended from Lena’s brother who was left behind by their father in South Africa. When Steven discovers that his father has been exchanging letters with long-lost relatives in Russia, he finds a part of himself he hadn’t realized was there. And because Russia is gradually starting to open up to Westerners, he decides to go for a visit, where he experiences a ton of culture shock as he realizes the fear that his relatives have to live with every day. And when Stephen meets Darya, it’s love at first sight.
When I first heard about On the Sickle’s Edge, I knew I had to read it. I’ve always had a thing for Russian history/culture/literature/etc., and even majored in it in undergrad. Once you start reading, you’ll be sucked into the story. It’s so fast paced that I read it in two sittings, despite it being almost 500 pages long. It’s that good.
I particularly loved seeing how Lena’s character evolved. When I studied in Russia, one of the first pieces of advice that I was given was not to trust the cops, because they are probably corrupt, but in the event of trouble, find a babushka. Little old ladies in Eastern Europe have been through so much, and they are a force to be reckoned with. And by the end of On the Sickle’s Edge, Lena is a total badass grandma who is ruthlessly protective of the people she cares about. The fact that she grows old and that the narrative switches to the next generation does not mean that she stops being relevant to the story.
On the Sickle’s Edge is particularly powerful because it highlights the impact that global/political events have on real people. And sometimes that impact isn’t just from policy, but also the interplay between political and domestic realms, as in Darya’s situation, where the corruption within the system destroyed her opportunities to get away from her abuser.
Reading On the Sickle’s Edge was more than a little bit terrifying because of today’s political uncertainty. It’s the kind of book that reminds you not to take anything for granted, and to realize how lucky you are and to hold your loved ones close. But despite the book’s darker content, it is ultimately a story of hope and resilience, and of the power of family. Although parts of the book were difficult for me to handle, a book that can make you feel so deeply is doing something right.
Verdict: Highly recommended.