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April 28, 2013

The Best Place on Earth by Ayelet Tsabari

the-best-place-on-earthCan this writer ever write, was my response when I read Ayelet Tsabari’s guest posts at The Afterword last month. And so I sought out her book The Best Place on Earth, a collection of stories about Israelis of Middle Eastern and African descent, only to discover that this wasn’t exactly what the book was “about” at all. Instead the centre of the book is Israel itself.

After she hung up, she turned back to the news online. Ten injured, nobody dead. For a moment, she could see how her country might look to a Canadian. How Jerusalem could be perceived as the worst place to live, raise a family, a dangerous, troubled city, torn between faiths, a hotbed for fanatics and fundamentalists.

In her book, Tsabari provides a whole different impression. That Israel is more than just Jerusalem, first of all, and that its people live in towns, villages, and neighbourhoods with their own distinctions. And that the people themselves come from diverse backgrounds beyond even Mizrahi and Ashkenazi, that Israelis themselves aren’t homogeneous, and their nation is populated by immigrants legal and otherwise striving to better lives for themselves. That Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are cities where people live out their lives in rich detail, where the backdrop is vivid and vibrant, and ordinary life possesses many more dimensions than can be made out on a one minute news clip about the aftermath of an explosion. And even when characters have left Israel behind, its complexities are always tied up in impossible notions of home.

“Lovers in a Dangerous Time” was the song I had running through my head as I read these stories, particularly the line, “One minute you’re waiting for the sky to fall. Next you’re dazzled by the beauty of it all.” In “Tikkun”, a man encounters an old flame and is surprised to find she’s become an Orthodox Jew, that she’s somebody’s respectable wife now. They spend time together at a cafe that is destroyed in a bombing shortly after their departure, imploding for a moment any distance between them. In “The Poets in the Kitchen Window”, a young boy longs for certainty as Iraqi missiles fall near his neighbourhood and his mother lies ill in the hospital, but he finds solace in poetry instead. “Casualties” is a fantastic story about a young woman serving in the army whose personal life and professional life become unravelled as she drowns her troubles in sex and drink.

A Filipino woman working illegally as a caregiver tries to dodge authorities as she contemplates falling in love. A man brings his Canadian girlfriend to meet his long-estranged father near the Dead Sea and discovers that the parameters of their relationship have shifted. A woman arrives in Canada to meet her new grandchild and is presented with the fact that her daughter has decided not to have her son circumcised. In the collection’s title story, an Israeli woman fleeing her marriage arrives in Vancouver to measure herself against her sister’s very different choices and very different life, but the distance between them may not be as wide as it seems.

Tsabari is excellent at atmosphere and representing a very real sense of place. The great writing I noticed in her non-fiction comes through here as well–my favourite passage was a fabulously rendered awkward sex scene in which a girl’s older, more experienced lover attempts cunnilingus as she is seriously preoccupied with other things (“Stop thinking.”). Perhaps it’s my sensibility, but I appreciated the stories about older characters the most, felt that these characters were represented with more depth and complexity, and that these were the stories that pushed the limits of their form, were not just well-rendered realism but were also about story itself.

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