A native of South Africa, Neville Frankel is a born artist and storyteller. Steeped in psychology and political history, his work explores the impact of family secrets across generations and how geopolitical events shape individual lives.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Neville Frankel immigrated to Boston with his family when he was 14. After graduating from Dartmouth College, he pursued doctoral work in English literature at the University of Toronto. While in Canada, he wrote The Third Power, a well-reviewed political thriller about the transformation of Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. He also received an Emmy for his work on a BBC documentary, The Mind of a Murderer: Part 1. In 2005 he returned to South Africa for the first time in 38 years. Over the next decade he went back several more times, researching what would become Bloodlines. He has recently completed work on his newest novel On the Sickle’s Edge, set in 20th-century Eastern Europe, South Africa and the United States.
Neville is a 2013 Jewish Book Council Author and has participated in speaking engagements around the country. A highlight of his Bloodlines book tour was addressing the Board of South Africa Partners and the South African Ambassador to the United States.
When he’s not writing, Frankel works as a financial planner. He also has a keen passion for painting. Frankel has three grown children and lives outside Boston with his wife Marlene.
Every novel has a backstory. I just read Anthony Doerr’s wonderful explanation of why he wrote All the Light We Cannot See and was so moved that I decided to answer the question for my own about-to-be-published novel, On The Sickle’s Edge. It’s a question that will be asked, as it has been of Bloodlines. And I have no doubt that it will be accompanied by another question that I have been asked at almost every talk I’ve given.
“Bloodlines reads like real life, not like a novel. Is it your own story? How autobiographical is it?”
I’m deeply complimented to hear that my work reads like real life. Perhaps it derives from my process, which involves getting into my characters’ heads and describing the world the way they see it.
But back to the question.
On the Sickle’s Edge is not autobiographical—but it does have its roots in my family history. One of the clearest memories of my childhood in South Africa is watching my mother, my grandmother and my great-uncle Joe return from their periodic shopping expeditions. They would lay their purchases out on the floor in the good living room where we children were seldom allowed, but I used to sneak in when no one was looking. I ignored the fashionable women’s sweaters and dozens of packages of silk stockings, but I ran my hands through the wool fabric of bolts of navy and grey suit cloth. I tried on the fancy leather gloves; stuck my hands into the shiny leather boots and draped dozens of leather belts over my shoulders, strutting around the silent room pretending to be an African warrior.
Each month they would get together to decide what should be included in this month’s package. Everything would be carefully wrapped in brown waxed paper, and the whole parcel sealed with glued brown paper strips and then secured around and around with what seemed like miles of brown twine cut from a massive roll. It had to be secure, they said. It was going to our cousins in Moscow, whom we had thought long dead, but had just discovered through the Red Cross were alive and well. Two of them were my Uncle Joe’s sisters, whom he had not seen since they left South Africa before World War I, when he was fourteen, and they no more than six or seven.
None of it made much sense to me—I was too young to understand the historic movements of whole peoples out of Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century, or the tumultuous history of the Russian Empire, or the consequence of two World Wars. All I understood was that we had new family in a place called Moscow, that they were very poor, and that we were helping them by sending them clothes that they could sell on something called the black market. Then they could buy food, and books, and heat their cold apartments in the freezing Moscow winters.
By the 1970s, my family had moved to Boston, and some of our cousins in Moscow had managed to obtain visas to come live in the United States. Fast forward to the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed, and more of our family managed to leave Moscow. One of them was by then an old woman; she had been taken at the age of six from South Africa to Latvia, and had never been able to return. She was my great-aunt, sister to Uncle Joe and to my grandfather. She and I had no language in common, but she ran her small, roughened hands across my cheeks, and said in Russian that I looked like her father. And when I peered into her eyes, I was shocked to see my grandfather, who died when I was a boy, without knowing that his sisters were still alive in Moscow.
I became intrigued by the way my family—like so many families—had been torn apart by massive political, economic and military events beyond our control. What, I wondered, makes the difference between those who adapt and survive, and those who don’t? What makes the difference between those who maintain their personal integrity in the face of incredible hardship, and those who can’t?
So why did I write On the Sickle’s Edge?
This story is for my grandfather, separated from his family as a boy, who waited all his life for his father and sisters to return. It is for my great-aunts and their children, thrust into the quagmire of Russian history and trapped in the Soviet Union until its collapse in the early 1990s. And it is for my own branch of the family who, fortunate enough to live in the United States, all but lost the memory of those who lived in such a different world. It’s a story about chance, and character, and serendipity. It is a story for all those whose lives and families have been touched by monstrous historical events, and for those who simply love a great story.