“All Part of the Tale. Don’t Ask Me How…”
This review is going to be well-nigh impossible to write, as the subject matter is so impossible to describe. Well, John Crowley’s Little, Big is definitely a book. That’s a good start. But the second I try to narrow down rudimentary elements like plot and character, my brain gets a bit fuzzy. It’s about a family. And a house. And how this family lives in the house which is situated on the borders of another world which sometimes intrudes upon their own, and so is aptly named “Edgewood.” Beyond that, it gets more complicated. Or maybe simpler. It’s hard to be sure.
It begins with a man named Smoky Barnable traveling from The City (though it’s never named, it’s clearly meant to be New York) toward the mysterious house of Edgewood in order to marry his physically large fiancée Alice Drinkwater. He’s not entirely sure why he wants to take this course of action; though he loves Alice, he doesn’t know her very well, and after the wedding he comes to the startling conclusion that he’s wandered into a story that’s centered around his new home of Edgewood. He is a minor character, and a witness to the proceedings of the mysterious “Tale” that takes place within the house and grounds.
Despite that, this book is not one of those irritating meta-texts in which the characters are all aware of the fact that they are fictional characters. The Tale that weaves its presence throughout the book is more to do with the idea of Fate, guided by the inhabitants that live on the edge of human perception, and whose presence hints at the true nature and purpose of the house. These “fairies” (though that word is seldom used) possess an old, fading magic that flits in and out of the family’s lives, and they seem to have a specific goal in mind. As we are gradually introduced to various family members, both past and present (including the architect of the house, his tarot-card reading wife, their son who makes himself woefully irresistible to women, and a stolen changeling child) we learn that some embrace this destiny, while others flee from it.
Yet this is not an overtly “fantastical” book. The presence of “magic” (another rare word) is not the focus of the book, and when it does show up, it is presented in a rather abrupt matter-of-fact way. Be prepared to be unprepared for the sudden inclusion of a talking fish or an enchanted stork in the midst of an ordinary paragraph about fishing or gardening. And yet, I’d be remiss if I made it sound as though this was a jumpy or erratic novel; it has its own internal logic, and Crowley’s mastery over his dreamy, elegant prose means that everything flows at a slow but smooth pace.
That’s the other thing: you absolutely must be a patient reader to enjoy, much less appreciate, this novel. The story (such as it is) unfolds at a snail’s pace, taking time to explore its own philosophy, world, and characters, though in a way that is fascinating to those already hooked on the premise and language. As it goes on, a pattern emerges and strands begin to tie neatly together, all culminating in a conclusion that is… I’m struggling to find a meaningful adjective… heartbreaking. Of the bittersweet, unforgettable, tear-inducing kind.
Whilst reading, I was reminded of a plethora of other novels and writing styles. Little, Big has the atmosphere and delicate prose of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, and the same interest in a secretive family dynasty and inheritance as Anne Rice‘s The Witching Hour. It has the meandering pace and mysterious nature of Susanna Clarke‘s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and Neil Gaiman‘s quirkiness in general. And yet it still manages to be something else entirely, even as it’s flooded with allusions to other works of literature: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Alice in Wonderland, The Aeneid, Paradise Lost and more. I especially liked the nod to the famous Cottingley fairies photographs, and one character’s musings on how an impersonal camera might be the only thing able to capture an alternate species that evolved in such a way to deflect human attention.
To be honest, after reading Little, Big I’m left rather bewildered, as though I myself visited Edgewood. This is a book that took me off guard, and wasn’t anything like what I was expecting. It moved at its own pace, which — though slow — still left me behind. Some parts are teeth-grindingly slow, others are sublimely beautiful and demand a second read. Symbols, allusions, metaphors, allegories and literary references abound. If I was to offer any advice should this review entice you to read, I’d recommend keeping in mind the words of the title itself. Throughout the book, a major theme is the idea of fluid size, unexpected shape, of things being bigger on the inside than on the outside, and that the further in you go, the larger things will get. Trust me, there’s a pay-off to this, even if everything else leaves you dizzy.
Such is the length and density of Little, Big that it will be a while before I can read it again, but I will one day, years from now. Until then, it’ll be rattling around in my head for a long time to come.
Smoky Barnable lives in the City and thinks of himself as anonymous. His father is dead and his step-siblings have forgotten him. He has no friends at all until he meets George Mouse who introduces him to his strange family. Smoky falls in love with one of George’s cousins, Daily Alice Drinkwater, and he moves upcountry to the Drinkwater estate called Edgewood. At his wedding he meets the Drinkwater family — a clan of eccentric characters who live in or near a huge pentagram-shaped house that Smoky is still getting lost in decades after he moves in (it’s bigger inside than outside). More strangely, the Drinkwaters also have some sort of “religion” that Smoky never quite understands until the end of the story when he realizes that maybe he was not as anonymous as he thought he was. Or maybe he was… And perhaps it’s not really the end of the story, but the beginning instead. Or maybe it really is the end…
During the course of the story, we jump backward and forward in time and meet past and future Drinkwaters, such as John Drinkwater who built the house as a model of five different architectural styles; his wife Violet Bramble who could see fairies; her illegitimate son Auberon who took up photography so he could capture the beings he thought he saw in his peripheral vision; Daily Alice’s sister Sophie, who spends much of her life asleep; Sophie’s illegitimate daughter Lilac who is stolen by the fairies and replaced with a changeling; George Mouse who uses hallucinogenic drugs and doesn’t really care if his bed partners happen to be relatives.
Most of the family’s stories are told in the past tense, after they’ve happened. Thus, there’s not much action or excitement in Little, Big — there’s little exploration of the house or woods or any interaction with the fairies. It’s a slowly meandering family history, somewhat like a soap opera. It’s full of “little” intimate details and doesn’t open up so that we can see the “big” picture until the very end.
Most of the characters are passive; some (mainly the women) believe they are in a fairy tale and are waiting to see how it ends. Those who don’t believe spend their time wondering what they’re not being told, or thinking that the rest of the family is crazy. Nobody talks much about the family’s relationship with faerie because nobody really knows. Is the family being protected? Are the fairies benevolent or malevolent? This aspect of an elusive, plotting, behind-the-scenes race of magical beings reminded me of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
Little, Big has a dreamy, often bleak, fatalistic feel. When bad things happen, such as disappearances, adultery, incest, teenage pregnancy and illegitimate birth, the family says “oh, dear,” forgives each other, and considers it all part of the Story, as if nobody is in control of their own actions. Many readers are sure to be enchanted with the wistfulness, but I did not feel as forgiving toward some of the characters as their family members did, and at one point I got so angry and disillusioned with Smoky that I wanted to give up on him. Not only was I mad at the characters who behaved badly, but I was mad at the rest of them for being so passively philosophical about it all.
What kept me reading this long meandering often depressing story was the magnificence of John Crowley’s prose, which was beautifully read by the author himself in Blackstone Audio’s recent production. Truly, I know few authors who compare and I often found myself sighing with delight at a metaphor or turn of phrase:
While the moon smoothly shifted the shadows from one side of Edgewood to the other, Daily Alice dreamed that she stood in a flower-starred field where on a hill there grew an oak tree and a thorn in deep embrace, their branches intertwined like fingers. Far down the hall, Sophie dreamed that there was a tiny door in her elbow, open a crack, through which the wind blew, blowing on her heart. Dr. Drinkwater dreamed he sat before his typewriter and wrote this: “There is an aged, aged insect who lives in a hole in the ground. One June he puts on his summer straw, and takes his pipe and his staff and his lamp in half his hands, and follows the worm and the root to the stair that leads up to the door into blue summer.” This seemed immensely significant to him, but when he awoke he wouldn’t be able to remember a word of it, try as he might. Mother beside him dreamed her husband wasn’t in his study at all, but with her in the kitchen, where she drew tin cookie-sheets endlessly out of the oven; the baked things on them were brown and round, and when he asked her what they were, she said “Years.”
The audio production of Little, Big was superb and my only complaint is that there is no accompanying family tree like there is in the print version of the book. Fortunately, I was able to find this with the “Look Inside” feature at Amazon.
Little, Big: or, The Fairies’ Parliament was nominated for all the major awards in 1982 and won the World Fantasy Award. Indeed, it’s a remarkable achievement and is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. Little, Big will not appeal to all readers, and I’m not sure I’ll read Little, Big again, but I will always remember it with awe. Fans of Catherynne M. Valente, Neil Gaiman, and Patricia McKillip will be totally charmed by John Crowley’s writing style and should put Little, Big on the top of their TBR stacks right now.