Review by Melissa Janae
What makes someone part of a place? Must they be born there? Do they have to share the same heritage? Is it a matter of speaking the same language, or passing through the same rituals?
Ayelet Tsabari deftly explores these questions and others in The Best Place on Earth. Set in Israel, Canada, and India, these stories are fraught with conflict. In “Tikkun,” Lior passes by a group of people watching news of a pigua—Hebrew for terror attack—before having coffee with the ex-girlfriend he never truly got over. Teenaged Uri weathers missile attacks in Ramat Gan during Operation Desert Storm in “The Poets in the Kitchen Window.” The poets are Uri and his sister Yasmin, and while he always dazzled his sister during metaphor games at the kitchen table, Uri has “never heard of a Yemeni or Iraqi poet, or any Mizrahi poet for that matter.” During “Invisible,” Rosalynn moves to Israel from the Philippines to find work as a caretaker to the elderly. Rosalynn also finds a home in her new country, even though, as her visa’s expired, she has no legal place there.
Tsabari is adept at writing from a variety of viewpoints; her characters, many descendents of the Yemeni airlifts in the late 1940s, are diverse in age and situation. Yet all have a quasi-outsider status: they belong and yet don’t belong at the same time. They may look the part, like Maya and Ian, two tourists in India in “A Sign of Harmony,” or Lily, who is taken in by her Israeli aunt in “Say it Again, Say Something Else.” Yet, Lily, whose mother was born in Israel, notes that “she feels like a stranger, a tourist.”
What also binds many of these characters is a constant shadow of violence. There’s an everyday quality to it, a habit that’s been ingrained, made automatic. Lior notices how an Israeli soldier assesses him during a cigarette break: “We are all trained to identify potential threats.” Even the missile strikes endured by Uri’s family and the other residents of Ramat Gan: “The war had settled into a rhythm, the sirens becoming an inconvenience, hijacking their dreams.”
Routine has the potential for dehumanization. To one conditioned by nightly news reports, even tragedy can become a list of statistics, a series of bulletins about some place far removed. But here is where The Best Place on Earth triumphs over reportage. Tsabari’s resonant details and the intimately drawn relationships between her characters refuse to let the reader remain aloof.
In the title story, two sisters recall their mother, whose nostalgia for Tunisia would manifest in red wine and old records, causing them embarrassment. Lovers reject, sisters judge, and parents are disappointed; these are relatable, though not always easy, relationships. They add a depth and complexity to oft-reported events and take them beyond pattern, into a terrain that is intricate and unrelentingly human.