Earlier this month, Audible released a production of Jane Retzig’s 1994 novel Boundaries. It features compelling storytelling and strong narration that will stay with you long after you finish listening.
The story unfolds in Northern England in the late 1970s and spans several years in the lives of two women, Elizabeth and Jan. Told in alternating, first person narratives, the listener is privy to how the women develop over time. At times, the listener is perhaps more aware of what is going on inside the protagonists than they themselves are. Elizabeth, a social worker in her mid-30s, takes on a younger boarder named Jan, at the behest of a colleague. Jan is on the cusp of her 18th birthday when her parents learn of a cache of love letters between their daughter and a family friend and kick her out. She makes do with a part-time job, school (she’s a stellar student), and pints of lager at local pubs.
Jan falls hard and fast for Elizabeth, but the older woman resists the mutual attraction. She immerses herself in university life, but continues to carry a torch for Elizabeth. Desire is always present, just beneath the surface, at times breaking to the forefront dramatically, before plunging back into the depths. They struggle with this gray territory and it has intense consequences for both women. “Ask me to stay and I will,” Jan pleads with Elizabeth towards the end, as her girlfriend waits outside to whisk her away. It’s a heart wrenching scene, one that is far from the first shared between the two women. They won’t see each other again for many years. Can they overcome the boundaries that divide them or will they remain emotionally adrift?
Jane Retzig crafts complex characters that I believe will resonate with listeners. Layers of uncertainty, fear, and longing are woven into social interactions and private introspection. The story gives me “took the long way home” feels; very much so for Elizabeth on her personal journey, but also for Elizabeth and Jan as a couple. Their complicated friendship points to many possible outcomes. It provides a strong case for it never being too late to take a chance or change direction in life.
Narrator Jan Kramer delivers nuanced, engaging performances as Elizabeth and Jan. I found myself entranced by her performance. She breathes life into the women, drawing them up off the page as she gives voice to their joys and pains. When she slips back and forth between Elizabeth’s and Jan’s first person chapters, there is no confusion as to who is speaking, through whose eyes we are viewing the world. Jan Kramer’s choice of inflection, tone, and pitch suit the characters perfectly. The rest of the characters who people this world are also clearly defined. Jan’s father leaps off the page; his anger loud and visceral as lashes out at his daughter. Elizabeth’s sister’s unhappiness haunts the pages, haunting the choices that Elizabeth makes (or doesn’t make); her voice nags and nit picks and whines. As the she takes us through the events, the changes that occur are keenly heard and profoundly felt.
If you’re looking for an audiobook that strongly evokes a time, place, and people, consider Boundaries as a staycation travel guide.
Available as an audiobook from Audible.