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“There’s the past again…wreaking its havoc.” A review of Jan Ellison’s A Small Indiscretion (Spoilers)

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A Novel by Jan Ellison

A Novel by Jan Ellison

 

 Publisher: Random House

Format: Hardback

Pages: 336

Publication Date: January 20th 2015

ISBN#: 9780812995442

Buy: Amazon, Powells, B&N, Goodreads

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.

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An Unexpected Snow

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snow dayI woke this morning to an unexpected snow.

Every morning I wake to the muffled sounds of my fiancé readying herself for work. I listen with sadness as I await her imminent departure. It is always early, well before 6, and at this time of year the darkness of night lingers. This morning, as I lay there waiting for Adrienne to come in and give me her daily gift of a goodbye kiss, I rolled over and looked up at the skylight above our bed. I looked only expecting darkness, and darkness I saw, However, I could see two shades of black, the lighter hue framing the darker. And I knew it had snowed.

I immediately began to worry. We live on a steep hill with a treacherous, perhaps even traitorous, driveway. I driveway that, in such weather, demands care and attention. If it feels neglected, it will not hesitate to fling you off of itself and into the dark, waiting woods. Adrienne and I had experienced its wrath one morning a few years ago when, in my haste to get to work, I had not shown the driveway its due respect.

However, after Adrienne had assured me the snow fall was minimal, nothing to worry about, I relaxed, kissed her goodbye and went back to sleep for another thirty minutes or so. Upon waking, I ate breakfast and watched the delays that ran across the screen of my morning news. I couldn’t help but search for my own place of employment on that list and think about how its absence didn’t anger or frustrate me as it would have last year-as it will again next year.

As a child, I loved the snow. Most children, especially those from the Northeast, do, I suppose. Waking up to snow was akin to waking up at the beach on vacation. It portended freedom. A day, if enough snow fell, off from school. A day spent with friends at play. A day where the adults expected little of you and rewarded your frivolity with hot chocolate bobbing with tiny marshmallows.

A snow day was a day lived frozen in amber, a day given to us children outside the ordinary realm of time.

When I was young, we lived in a neighborhood filled with children my age. When the snow fell, we spilled into the streets, stuffed into our winter-gear like little sausages. We ran through the empty streets, abandoning any fear of cars, engaged in snow wars, forming and breaking alliances. Or someone might produce a football, and we’d go to the largest yard in the neighborhood and play until our fingers were too numb to catch the ball. Or, a few of us might drag our wood and metal sleds, gliders we called them, to some pathetic excuse for a hill and pretend we stood at the tippy-top of the Alps before plunging down, the cold wind bitting at our ears when our hats fell off.

Throughout most of my childhood I heard rumors of a nearby neighborhood that had a large hill perfect for sledding. Blossom Hill. My brother, eight years older than I, went there with his friends and told me about it. He built a mountain with his words and I imagined him and his friends reaching breakneck speeds as they plummeted down the side of this massive slope. I imagined the icy winds that would howl and freeze snot-sickles to your face. I imagined my stomach in my ears. And I always begged to be allowed to go.

A few years later we moved, and I never did get to sled Blossom Hill. We did, however, move to the top of a big hill where I still live today. A hill, too, I have never sledded.

As I got older, I became more ambivalent about the snow. The snow now meant perfidious commutes, backbreaking shoveling, and a lingering dampness in my bones. A jagged-edged anxiety of having to go out replaced the sweet anticipation of freedom. At some point, the hot chocolate disappeared, replaced with bitter coffee. There were no more marshmallows, only warm packets of half-and-half.

But this morning, once Adrienne let me know she’d arrived safely at work, the snow only filled me with a sense of wonder. I looked out the windows and saw a world covered in frosting. And I wanted to go out and play. To see my footprints be the first human tracks made in all that white.

But I didn’t. I stayed inside, warm, and wrote. Driven as if by the ticking of some clock.

Besides, it was a small snow. A snow that will soon be lost to the vagaries of the late autumn temperatures. I know bigger and better snows are to come. And I know now that it’s not the snow or the cold that froze time back then, but something internal, something fragile, something small. Something that turned itself on when I was a child, but now requires a manual switch. Something that, as you get older, runs for fewer hours. Something like an illusion.

So come the first big snow, if Adrienne is home with me, we will both throw that switch, and run outside and dare our hill on our newly bought round, plastic sled, as blue as the winter sky. We shall play until the cold drives us back inside again. Then we will have hot chocolate filled with marshmallow islands and fall sleep together under a warm blanket in the middle of the day.