What sets Ayelet Tsabari’s collection apart is the ever-present sense of motion in the stories, even when the characters themselves are struggling with a sense of inertia.
I know, I know: that sounds impossible.
But even when the characters appear to be stagnant in some ways, there is a sense of simmering, a subtle motion, a tension between what they have and what they desire.
Take the opening story, “Tikkun”.
“I’m just about to cross the street to Café Rimon when I see Natalie sitting on the shaded patio and my heart skips, trips, and falls over itself.”
He then leans against a wall and lights a cigarette in downtown Jerusalem, but his heart is skipping, tripping, and falling.
(Even though if the story had been narrated by another character, readers wouldn’t have been able to tell just what action was playing out in the tissues beneath his skin.)
Paradoxically, this story contains more overt plot than most of the other stories in The Best Place on Earth, but it begins with the narrator taking time to lean and light a smoke.
It certainly seems like a story in which the action will be more internal than external, but readers travel to unexpected places in the opening story.
And, it’s true that relationships are at the core of Ayelet Tsabari’s stories. The following quote from “Invisible” (one of my favourite stories) illustrates the sensory and visceral detail which characterizes the authorial voice behind these tales.
“The next morning, as she made Savta’s tea, helped her bathe and dress, Rosalynn caught a trace of the smell of him on her skin – sweat, soap, paint – and a warm, wonderful sick feeling churned in her stomach, coursed through her body, flushed her cheeks.”
Often that sense of everyday motion is also contained in the occasional snippet of figurative language as well, like this from the title story: “She found herself saving her daily anecdotes and observations for Ami, and then watching them go stale like leftover food in the fridge.”
But the author maintains a delicate balance between themes rooted in security (e.g. family ties, artistic ambition, heritage/cultural identity) and themes of volatility (e.g. war, regional conflict, persecution).
The delicate crafting of stories like “Warplanes”, which begins and ends with the machinery of war, also provides a sense of security in an instance characterized by insecurity.
In the first sentence, “On the way home from school, three warplanes slice the sky, leaving a trail of chalk across blue as they head north”, the F15s roar through the narrative. But the storytelling is taut throughout, until the story ends “[u]p high, two warplanes fly north and disappear behind trees”.
The importance of crafting and artistry is obliquely commented upon when a young boy who loves to write poetry first learns about an actual Iraqi poet in “The Poets in the Kitchen Window”:
“That night, he lay in bed, mouthing the poems to himself. He had never read poetry like that, hadn’t known it existed: the verse written in an easy, fluid language, sometimes even slang, and often about everyday things. Yet it was beautiful, haunting, filled with such passion that Uri felt seized by it himself, unable to put the book down, too wired to fall asleep.”
There – that twinned sense of the ordinary and extraordinary, the familiar and the haunting – is yet another quality which characterizes this debut collection.
Characters who can seem close might actually be far apart, separated by a single pane of glass and by a hundred misunderstandings.
In “Below Sea Level”, David “watched his dad through the glass as if there were still oceans and continents between them. His father, sun-kissed in the warm desert; David frozen in his chilled air-conditioned car.”
An air-conditioned car in a desert: such a dramatic contrast. And, indeed, much of the setting in these stories will be unfamiliar to readers (I truly felt as though I was “away” when reading this collection).
At times, these settings are volatile but at times they seem to be “The Best Place on Earth”, which is how Jerusalem is described in the collection’s final story. “Street lights filtered through the arches living room windows, and the evening fell over Jerusalem like warm syrup drizzled over baklava.”
(Well, warm syrup and baklava? That’s always one step closer to the best place on earth, isn’t it.)
Throughout this collection, there is a simultaneous awareness of the familiar and the unfamiliar, the anticipated and the unexpected, the enduring and the changeable.
And, always, as in even a simple description of the setting in “Say It Again, Say Something Else”, there is a sense of motion.
“The apartment building – a long, tawny three-storey with three entrances and rows of laundry strung between windows – is opposite a falafel stand that reeks of oil and chickpeas and garlic and cigarette smoke. At night, when the air is juicy and the street lamps paint everything a warm, forgiving colour, men with beer bellies and women with hennaed hair sit on their small balconies, cracking sunflower seeds and spitting the shells into the hibiscus bushes with their red trumpet flowers. Through the open windows of the buildings on the block, Lily can hear TVs blaring and dishes clanking, kids crying and couples fighting and having sex.”
The stories in Ayelet Tsabari’s The Best Place on Earth are engaging and evocative, the author’s voice is vibrant and resonant: a thoroughly satisfying combination.
Contents: Tikkun, Say It Again, Say Something Else, Brit Milah, The Poets in the Kitchen Window, Casualties, Invisible, Below Sea Level, A Sign of Harmony, Borders, Warplanes, The Best Place on Earth