May 23, 2015


Books

Achingly human characters populate short stories

THE Israelis who populate this Canadian-published debut short story collection are male and female, young and old, religious and secular, often invisible and uniformly unhappy. As imagined by author Ayelet Tsabari, they are also achingly human and almost flawlessly fashioned.

Tsabari is a Yemeni Jew born and raised in Israel and now living in Toronto, and each one of the 11 stories in this impressive collection reflects that history.

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These are stories about national identity, generation gaps, emigration and immigration, and the longing for love, home, peace and family. Taken together they perfectly capture life, and its many divides, in Israel where most of the stories are set.

War, or the absence of peace, is the background to every story.

In Invisible, a Philippine health-care aide working illegally in Israel befriends a traumatized army veteran. In Casualties, a young female army recruit from an impoverished town fences forged medical release forms, and in War Planes a girl comes to terms with her father's death.

The Poets in the Kitchen Window takes place during the Gulf War, as Iraqi missiles rain down on Tel Aviv, and the elegiac Borders takes place just as that war has ended, "and for a brief, hopeful moment it seemed like there would never be another war."

In that story, one of the finest in the collection, a young Israeli woman about to start her compulsory military service returns to Sinai, where she was born, to search for her father, even though the desert area now belongs to Egypt.

There, between the two nations, "a chain link fence descended into the water, as though the sea could be divided, as though water didn't flow between the two countries."

The desire to reconnect with family members is also at the heart of the title story. In The Best Place on Earth, middle-aged Naomi decides to escape her faltering marriage by travelling to Vancouver to visit her sister. There, in spite of the peace and quiet and ease of life, Naomi comes to appreciate her hometown of Jerusalem as the best place on earth.

"She was so used to living in a constant state of urgency, verging on emergency," she realizes, "she couldn't fathom living anywhere else."

This brutally honest collection of stories is certain to be compared with Israeli author Shani Boianjiu's recent, critically acclaimed novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid. As authors of non-European Jewish descent, both Boianjiu and Tsabari represent the same minority voice in Israeli fiction and touch on similar themes -- the second-class citizenship of Arabic Jews, the dreariness of small town and army life, and the way that compulsory service, disengagement, war and violence affect everyday life.

Tsabari's narrative, however, is the more accessible and relatable of the two, and not just because of its shorter format.

Readers familiar with the landscape, diversity and dichotomies of Israel will recognize in her stories people and places that they know.

Readers who know Israel only from the headlines will find these stories much more surprising, but smart, sad and sincere nonetheless.

Winnipeg writer Sharon Chisvin lived in Israel for a short time many years ago.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2013 J9

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