“I resist imagining the present . . . in order to finger my way along the thread, backward to the beginning.” Thus Annie Black Gunnlaugsson begins a first-person narrative that unravels stories of her distant past and also contemplates actions that occurred more recently. Jan Ellison weaves together a complicated fictional tapestry in A Small Indiscretion, moving seamlessly from one time frame to another. “I pull the thread, and it grows longer. I tug and tug, from this spring 2012 to the fall of 1989, when I first went to London. Then I tug further.”
Tacitly, Annie is writing to her absent son, wanting him to know her history and hoping he will understand the decisions she made along the way. At the same time, Annie is trying to understand herself. Sometimes rationalizing and sometimes writing with impeccable honesty, she disentangles her movements and her motives. When Annie was nineteen, she traveled to London on a lark, found a temporary job there, and established a pattern of behavior that later would haunt her. That “small indiscretion” is the woof and warp of A Small Indiscretion. It shapes Annie’s future.
There are several reasons to admire Ellison’s novel. The point of view is extremely well-handled. Annie’s life is filled with mistakes, yet she is an extremely likeable human being. The reader is squarely ‘on her side.’ Equally adroit are the shifting time frames. The action smoothly moves back and forth between present and past. The past centers on a single London season, twenty-three years before. The present moves in fits and starts, including events from last year, from last summer, from last week, from the here and now. Often a single chapter will include events from several different times. Despite the sequential vagaries, however, the reader never gets lost, even though the reader doesn’t see the continuities until near the novel’s end. This is the mark of a gifted writer, and I give Ellison full credit for such artistic prowess.
I also give Ellison credit for keeping the reader guessing. As Annie tugs at the threads of her life, mysteries surface and then questions are answered. Like so many good novels, this one holds many secrets that cannot—must not—be revealed in a book review. Suffice to say that Annie’s “small indiscretion” turns out to have huge repercussions that threaten her happiness and the well-being of those she loves. While I wish she had been more discreet throughout her life, I thoroughly enjoyed her story. One more dysfunctional family; one more compelling read! – Ann Ronald
A Small Indiscretion is Jan Ellison’s debut novel.