Near the end of Elizabeth Nunez’ Anna In-Between, the title character bitterly observes something that should be blatantly obvious: “Fiction best achieves the universal through the specific. It is by telling stories that are plausible, about characters who are believable, that the writer eases us into exploring the many facets of the human condition. So what if the specific characters are people of color?” The character's frustration is from her inability to persuade her editorial supervisors. Elizabeth Nunez will be satisfied that her novel makes a persuasive statement of fact.
Anna’s frustration culminates from dealing with family problems at the same time she is wondering where her career is heading. There’s a lot of uncertainty and flailing about when one is “in-between”. At forty years of age, Anna is divorced, frustrated at work, and back in her mother’s home seething with twenty years of pent up mother-daughter resentment.
Even after Anna discovers her mother’s bleeding breast tumor, the rancor doesn’t dissolve. Beatrice’s illness becomes one more issue added to Anna’s unfinished business between her mother and herself, her father, her island culture, her place.
Beatrice refuses to have surgery in the United States. Anna cannot find a convincing argument. Mother’s tumor is beyond local hospitals. Agreed. One of the leading oncologists in the States is the son of a local, a former associate of Anna’s father. Agreed. Racism in the United States, Beatrice argues, means her care would be suspect. She’s seen the news. Local medicine will have to do, even though the Indians have taken over the profession.
Beatrice’s racism and anti-US bias give Anna pause to enjoy—regretfully—the fulfillment of being a black woman in society run by other black people, albeit her estranged homeland. Back home in New York City she’s an island unto herself: few friends, her career a thankless struggle as a literary affirmative action employee.
And here’s Anna’s imperious mother completely vulnerable before her. Anna and her parents rarely spoke intimately. As a child, Anna never touched nor kissed her mother. Now, when intimacy matters highly, as a family and as individuals they have no experience being self-disclosing.
With the anger Anna’s built up in her twenty year exile, she prepares for brutal confrontations with her mother and father. How did they allow everything—Beatrice’s cancer, the family’s relationships—to get this bad? When Anna gets her answers they come in readily digestible lumps for her and Nunez’ reader.
In the end, Nunez chooses to leave Beatrice’s future in Paul Bishop’s care. Perhaps Anna’s, too. Therein rests the in-betweeness you don’t see coming until the last minute.
Readers will enjoy how Nunez skillfully weaves concerns like skin color, caste associations, nationalism, colonialism, racism, immigration, identification and identity into her story and characters’ lives. Enjoyable, too, are figuring out sui generis foods like a frozen pastel and buljoil.
“The marinated saltfish is mixed with an appetizing medley of colors: translucent pieces of raw onion, chopped red tomatoes,yellow and red sweet peppers, and spinkles of fresh green chives and parsley.”
The pastel was more of a challenge. When Paul Bishop pays a call on Beatrice to convince her to come to his clinic for the surgery, Beatrice hurrys Lydia to defrost the pastels in the freezer. I am thinking home made candies, maybe like pralines are to New Oleans. When Beatrice urges Anna to unwrap the pastel for the handsome single Doctor, I understand. The pastel it turns out, is a tamal. Are they sweet?
Reading between the hojas you might discern Nunez’ surprise ending to the novel. While readers will be overjoyed at the likely outcome, it deserved a stronger build-up. Poor Anna. All depressed and it turns out mother’s plan worked out in the end. Lucky Anna.
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