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Where is the best place on Earth? The characters in Tsabari's debut collection (winner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature) are searching for somewhere to feel at home, whether they're travelers, emigrants, or just restlessly living in the place they were born.

Tsabari was born in Israel to a family of Yemeni descent, and she moved to Vancouver in 1998; she only started writing in English 10 years ago. Her Israeli characters feel out of place in their own country because, like Tsabari's family, they come from Arab backgrounds and aren't Ashkenazi, like most Israeli Jews; some have left for Canada or Britain. In "A Sign of Harmony," Maya travels to India with her new boyfriend, Ian, who has an Indian father and an English mother and has never been to India before. It's her fourth trip—she travels there each fall to buy fabrics and other merchandise to sell in Europe—and she feels more at home than he does. Several of Tsabari's characters are traversing the foreign land of adolescence, trying to make friends and test their sexuality while dealing with larger forces. Lily moves from Canada to Israel to live with her aunt after her mother dies, and is scared and thrilled when her new friend Lana kisses her. But her family's identity is always in the background when she's in Israel: "My grandparents came from Yemen, so we are Arabs in a way, Arab Jews." Seeming contradictions like that are everywhere in Tsabari's world. In "Invisible," Rosalynn is a Filipino immigrant who's overstayed her visa; she takes care of an old woman she calls "Savta," Hebrew for "grandmother," who also takes care of her. Characters embrace their mandatory army service, run away from it, or use it to their own ends. In the stunning opening story, "Tikkun," the first-person narrator runs into his ex-girlfriend, whom he hasn't seen in seven years, and is surprised to see she's become an Orthodox Jew. As they sit down to share a coffee, the narrator scans the patio, taking in the other patrons: "We are all trained to identify potential threats." One woman grew up in a small town in the Sinai, which she was forced to leave when Israel returned the peninsula to Egypt, but she doesn't want to label her family as "settlers"—"It was different then. They didn't go there for ideological reasons." But is it possible to be innocent in this world?

Tsabari creates complex, conflicted, prickly people you'll want to get to know better.

Pub Date: March 1st, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-8129-8893-2
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2016