Reviewed by Aaron Kreuter
The Best Place on Earth, Ayelet Tsabari’s debut collection of short stories, brings readers directly into the messy, human heart of life in Israel. Tsabari — an Israeli of Yemeni descent now living in Canada — tackles a wide number of issues, from the different social stratas of Tel Aviv to living in a country that is constantly at war, to the varied ways that Israelis of different ages, origins, and genders learn to deal with the daily realities of violence, segregation, and death.
As is evident in these stories, Tsabari knows Israel intimately: from the urban streets of Tel Aviv to the quiet outer suburbs, from the Old City of Jerusalem to the Jordan Valley, the stories are filled with the scenes and smells of everyday life of the small Middle-Eastern country. However, the stories are not just cold explorations of Israeli society; they are, in fact, anything but. Tsabari is able to get to the hard, emotional core of a stunning variety of human experiences and relationships, including adolescent girls, artsy boys and hyper-masculine fathers, old lovers, and more. The amount of human connection on display here is astounding. The stories are fierce, startlingly emotional, and teeming with sexual energy, but they are also deeply empathetic, quietly political, and brilliantly executed.
In the opening story, “Tikkun,” two old lovers run into each other at a Jerusalem cafe during the first intifada and try to come to grips with where life has taken them. In “Casualties,” a female Israeli soldier works at an army health clinic, sells forged “gimelim” (forms that grant soldiers two-day health leaves), and deals with her boyfriend’s recent stationing in Gaza. Tsabari inhabits the mind and world of her characters: “Invisible” is from the point of view of an illegal Filipina worker taking care of an elderly Yemenite Israeli; “Brit Milah” looks at the changing relationship young Israelis have with religion and tradition through the eyes of a grandmother visiting her daughter and new grandson in Toronto; “A Sign of Harmony” investigates what it’s like to be dark-skinned, female, and Israeli in India, where young Israelis often travel after their mandatory army service. These little descriptions do nothing to capture the depth and beauty of the stories themselves, brimming with insight and emotion as they are. These are stories that need to be read, reread, shared, and experienced.
Though Tsabari works within a proscribed number of themes — belonging (as well as not-belonging and sort-of-belonging); living in a militarized country where violence is a given; and deep, painful longing — the stories never repeat, each one focused as it is on a different situation. Taken together, the collection reveals a multi-faceted world where skin colour, sexual longing, missiles, and the army are all extraneous to what is really important: human connection.
According to the author bio in the hardcover edition, Tsabari is now at work on a novel. Hopefully, this does not mean that the author is leaving the short story form behind, as her talents for concision, dialogue, and the ability to quickly set up complex emotional situations are perfectly suited to the short story format. But if this is the end of Tsabari’s short-story-writing career, at least we have these 11 stories to keep coming back to.
(HarperCollins Canada / 224 pgs. / March 2013 / CDN$24.99 in hardcover)