Boundaries by Elizabeth Nunez (A Review by David S. Atkinson)

Akashic Books


Tension is not usually comfortable in actual life.  In fact, most people do what they can to avoid having tension in their lives.  Strangely enough, though, tension seems generally necessary for stories to hold reader interest.  If a story has no tension for a reader then the reader may not feel compelled to keep reading.  The most compelling stories, of course, are the stories that readers cannot seem to put down – the stories that are full of tension.

Perhaps tension is just interesting.  Perhaps normally tension-averse readers find themselves unable to leave a story until vicariously produced tension is resolved, whether or not that resolution ever truly comes.  Regardless, the importance of tension for readers in stories cannot be ignored.

One way for tension to be created in stories is through conflict.  Such conflict may be within a character, between a character and the character’s environment, between different characters, and so on.  Regardless of the source of the conflict, conflict spawns tension.  Conflict means something significant is going to happen and readers better hang on to find out what.  This is certainly the case in Boundaries by Elizabeth Nunez.  Boundaries has conflict in spades.

The main character, Anna Sinclair, is literally full of conflict.  For example, on a visit to the Caribbean island of her birth, her mother “shows [Anna] the lump on [her mother’s] breast and the one under [her mother’s] arm lodged in [her mother’s] lymph nodes.”  It is a cancer that Anna’s “mother has allowed…to fester and bloom.” As “her mother’s only child,” Anna feels she needs to “to stay by [her mother’s] side” as her mother undergoes chemotherapy and surgery.  However, Anna “needs to be in New York.”  “It has taken” Anna “years to climb up the ladder at…an internationally renowned publishing company where she is head of “the company’s “imprint for writers of color.”  Beyond her personal ambitions and goals, “[t]here are writers who need her.”  Anna is conflicted between her duty to her parents and her duty to her career.

Such conflict would be enough to generate tension, but Nunez does not rest there.  Even Anna’s conflicts are full of conflict.  Supporting her mother through her mother’s struggle with cancer increases Anna’s intimacy with her mother, but Anna doesn’t “know how to love her” mother.  Her mother “was not very demonstrative” and Anna never learned how to be close and express love for her mother.  Thus, even as Anna is torn between her need to be there for her parents and her need to handle her career, satisfying her duty to her parents forces her to deal with her disassociation from her mother.

Anna’s commitment to her career is charged with conflict as well.  She tries to use her position to give society what she believes it needs, “to be inspired again, to be reminded of the values that have sustained the human race over centuries.”  However, because of what books sell, Anna finds most of her work consisting of “explicit sex” and “neighborhood gangs slaughter[ing] each other with as little remorse and as much glee as if they had crushed an army of cockroaches crawling through the crevices of their filthy apartments.”  Her very commitment to her principles regularly forces her in her job to end up perpetuating the very stereotypes and mental stagnation despised by those principles.  If she quits, she would have no ability to fight for her views on literature.  If she continues, she has to do so by helping to publish the very books she is fighting so hard against.  Hence, there is conflict even inside of Anna’s conflict.

Boundaries layers Anna with conflicts inside of conflicts, inside of conflicts.  Then, Nunez carefully places Anna and her conflicts precariously in Anna’s New York/Caribbean world.  Because the balance is so delicate, friction causes heat from the slightest change and flames quickly erupt. And, luckily for the me as a reader, no world ever stays the same.  For instance, corporate shakings in the publishing company threaten to strip Anna of what progress she has made because she is a Caribbean immigrant and is perceived not to be a part of the African American struggle.  Again, conflict is pitted against conflict against conflict.  This conflict-generated tension gripped me continuously from one end of book to the other.

It is true that Anna’s conflicts, both within herself and between herself and her world, are particular.  Nunez constructs these conflicts such that they are highly personalized to Anna.  However, as I read I could see conflicts of my own embodied within Anna’s conflicts: the struggle to balance family and career, the fight between principles and means to serve those principles, and even the war between hope and accepting life’s circumstances.  I was interested and watched Anna’s battles, but those battles quickly became something much larger for me than their specific details would suggest, something universal.

Boundaries is a book that has something to say as well as a story to tell.  I, for one, would encourage other readers to listen to that something.  I certainly am happy that I did.


David S. Atkinson is a Nebraska-born writer currently living in Denver.  He holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska.  His stories have appeared in (and/or are soon to be appearing in) “Gray Sparrow,” “Children Churches and Daddies,” “Split Quarterly,” “Cannoli Pie,” “C4: The Chamber Four Lit Mag,” “Atticus Review,” “Brave Blue Mice,” and “Fine Lines.”  His book reviews have appeared in “Gently Read Literature,” “The Rumpus,” and “All Things Pankish.”  The web site dedicated to his writing can be found at  He currently serves as a reader for “Gray Sparrow” and in his non-literary time he works as a patent attorney in Denver.