Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: January 20th 2015
In Jan Ellison’s debut novel A Small Indiscretion, the author reminds us that the past, though buried, often sits like a land mine just below the surface of the present, seemingly innocuous but potentially deadly. That, when unearthed, the resultant explosion can create massive amounts of unforeseen collateral damage.
In the case of A Small Indiscretion, the mine was buried twenty years deep in Annie Black’s past. The mysterious arrival of a twenty year old photograph is all it takes to set the fuse. In the aftermath, Annie is left trying to fix her broken marriage and her broken son.
Through a fragmented narrative, Annie gathers the shards and shrapnel of memory and history in an attempt to explain and understand what has happened to her family. To uncover blame and find forgiveness. Though Annie addresses her words to her son, this excavation of her past is really only meant for her.
Annie’s story swings back and forth between her past and her present, often skipping decades in a matter of paragraphs. Though occasionally confusing, it emphasizes the entanglement of time, the interrelatedness of the past with the present. However, she anchors her tale with the story of her year in Europe two decades ago, which she pinpoints as the genesis of her current troubles. These troubles, her more recent history, serve as the other anchor, in which she relives her past year. A year that includes a crumbling marriage, a horrific car accident which nearly claims her son’s life, a destructive act which shuts down her business, and her recovered son’s unexplained disappearance.
The pages Annie writes reveal a confession of sorts. She arrives in Europe a virgin on the verge of twenty, and by the time she leaves she has shared some type of love with three different men. Malcolm Church, her married, much older boss, courts Annie first. Malcolm has a somewhat open relationship with his wife Louise, who is having an affair with a photographer ten years her junior named Patrick. Annie resists Malcolm, primarily because instead of taking what he wants, he tries to win it through kindness and tenderness. When she meets Patrick, however, she finds someone more aggressive and much less sentimental. It takes him but an afternoon to achieve what alluded Malcolm for months. She does eventually give into Malcolm, once, on a trip to Paris that includes Patrick and Louise. She gives in only when Malcolm proves persuasive, only as he gives up his quest for her love, only hours before he unexpectedly dies.
Annie leaves Paris not long after this dalliance, without any knowledge of Malcolm’s demise. She boards a ship she thought would take her back to London only to find herself, ironically, bound for Patrick’s homeland, Ireland. On this ship she meets the man who would eventually become her husband.
These events encapsulate the period of Annie’s past which threaten her present. The photograph which arrives in the mail is of her, Malcolm, Patrick, and Louise on their way to France. It is this picture which reawakens in Annie a desire for loves past and eventually reunites her with Patrick on a trip to London, which leads to a one-night stand twenty years in the making. And it is the unknown sender of that photograph who generates violence and destruction in Annie’s life once she returns home.
The structure of the novel, fragments of the past intermingled with scenes from the destruction which that past has wrought, generates an abundance of foreshadowing. At first, these hints and clues propel the reader through the narrative, ramping up the tension with each turn of the page. However, an attentive reader quickly connects the dots, making the remainder of Ellison’s winks and nudges seem heavy handed and overdone. It also unnecessarily calls attention to itself, making one ask why Annie, the supposed writer of these words, is being so constantly obtuse with the truth.
Another issue that arises with Annie is her lack of growth. She does not seem all that different at 40 compared to her 20 year-old self. Despite being a mother of three, running her own business, having been married for twenty years, she seems to have learned little from these experiences. This is most clearly seen in the ease with which she conducts her affair with Patrick. And yet, the novels seems to assert that Annie has grown.
Annie is a woman of contrasts, difficult to pin down. She can manage a fierce independence as seen when she travels from California to Maine at the age of 19 to track down her philandering father after he abandoned the family and emptied Annie’s bank account to pay his debts. Or when, after confronting him, she travels to Europe with only two-hundred dollars to her name and no real employment prospects. However, she is also constantly in search for a man who will, in her words, “take her in hand.” She says of Malcolm, that if he had just “taken her in hand” she would have slept with him right away. The one time she refuses to sleep with Patrick, she says that if he had put up any kind of fight, she would have given in immediately. And she is initially attracted to Jonathan, the man who will become her husband, because he looked like a man who would “take her in hand.” In fact, he makes a comment within hours of their meeting at if a woman wants to be loved, she must behave like a good dog. This makes Annie feel safe. However, this makes her somewhat pliable to the whims of strong men, and creates a fluidity in loyalties.
Also, Annie’s confession, the novel itself, comes across as an exercise in self-forgiveness. She clearly loves her husband and family and she hates the pain she’s caused them, but her main concern is always with her own pain, her own suffering. She criticizes others with an ease and a vehemence she never directs at herself, at her own actions. This also contributes to a lack of development in any of the other characters. Annie’s focus on herself leads to seeing all the other characters as flat and one dimensional. They serve only as background figures for her own drama. In the end, I came to deeply dislike Annie.
Ellison offers a complex narrative, juggling several storylines at once. Though at times, the balance feels tenuous, she manages to keep the balls in the air to the very end. As I mentioned earlier, she over-prepares the readers for the bombshells she later delivers, which lead them to land quietly, without exploding. They make perfect sense, but do not shock. In the same sense, Ellison can also be too heavy handed with her symbolism, overtly drawing your attention away from the story and to the writing itself.
That said, Ellison also manages to often write with a lyrical beauty that enlivens and enriches Annie’s story. Ellison can sometimes be lazy in her writing, with lines like, “…then he kissed me again—quite persuasively—and I was moved, in the nether regions, in spite of myself.” Fortunately, these moments are exceptions to her normally tight and controlled style. Her hard work shines through in passages such as this: “The heart is large, and there is more than one material in the bucket we call love.”
Though I did not love this book, I would recommend giving it a read. Ellison is a very capable writer who weaves together an emotionally complex story which raises many interesting questions about love and family, time and memory. Though I disliked Annie Black, she did have me asking myself about my own relationship with my past, and checking for possible dangers under my own feet.