Little, Big

by John Crowley

Cover image

Publisher: Perennial
Copyright: 1981
Printing: 2002
ISBN: 0-06-093793-9
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 538

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Smokey Barnable is walking to be married, a wedding to a tall, quiet girl he was introduced to by a friend. He's walking because Daily Alice, his bride-to-be, lives in an oddly unknown place in the middle of the country, some distance from the City where they met. He's also walking because that's how he was told to arrive, for reasons that were never quite clear to him, or the wedding wouldn't be right. Soon, he will join an eccentric family in Edgewood, a huge house of varying architectural styles, losing the anonymity that he's had his entire life. He will try to understand, and then simply accept, a family that shares secrets and a Tale that they would explain except that there's never quite any way to talk about it.

This is how Little, Big opens, and from there it sprawls out into a multi-generational family saga, covering events from the founding of the family and the building of Edgewood by Daily's great-grandfather to the life of Smokey and Daily's children and particularly their youngest son. While there are individual stories, and even moments of drama, Little, Big is more of an atmosphere than a story, a book that one lives in rather than reads through, that refuses to be hurried or give up its secrets easily. The influence and presence of fairy is unmistakable and sometimes directly present, but remains elusive. There is a certain magical logic to everything that happens, a weaving into a larger Tale and a balancing of cost and benefit, of risk and reward, but never is this accounting obvious or clearly explained. The Drinkwater family, in all of its many branches, lives on the edge of the wood, sometimes heading out into the world, misunderstanding it and changing it deeply, and sometimes wandering into the deeper woods, seeing things that are left unexplained and glimpsing patterns that are too deep to talk about.

This is a beautiful, evocative book that I found difficult to get through. I appreciate what Crowley is doing, and his mastery of language, setting, and character shines through every page. Still, Little, Big can also be frustrating and painfully slow, as events persistently refuse to collect themselves into a clear story and the narrative rarely gathers enough momentum to build traditional suspense. It is full of ideas, images, characters, and moments, hints at something larger. Some of them seemed to slip away into irrelevance while others turned out to be very important later, and not only did I do a poor job distinguishing between the two, I'm certain that I completely missed the point of some of the apparently irrelevant ones.

This is one of those books that I feel I didn't quite get, in a way that I tend to blame more on myself than on the book. If only I were better read, if I were a little more attentive, if I had a slightly better memory, if I were a touch more perceptive.... But reading only along the surface that I followed, the plot didn't have quite enough motion and drama to carry me along. I spent much of the first hundred pages feeling confused and constantly paging back to the abbreviated family tree to try to understand what generation of the family was being talked about, and while this improves later, the large cast combined with subtle references to secondary characters and previous events remained a bit frustrating throughout. I loved the language and poetry of the story while I was reading it, but I found myself reluctant to pick it up again; reading it took three or four times longer than I normally take to read a book this length.

The atmosphere is the strongest part of this book. Crowley creates the feeling of being constantly on the edge of something huge, surrounded by ancient and wild magic, fitting into a barely perceived pattern, swept away by events that one never understands. Little, Big never gives up its secrets, never tears through that curtain that hides the other world. The ending is just as strange, haunting, and ambiguous as the rest of the book. You may find this frustrating; at times, I certainly did.

However, if one can accept the atmosphere for what it is and let one's thoughts flow with the story, the depth to both the setting and the characters is astonishing. I felt like I knew these characters, understood how they felt, what they cared about, their bafflement or acceptance of the world. There are several beautiful moments late in the book, between Smokey and Auberon among others, where subtle and nearly unnoticed character construction throughout the whole story pay off in moments of pure recognition, where the reader goes "Aha!" and suddenly a character's life and perspective makes perfect sense even if the events surrounding them are still obscure. The slow build-up is very much worth it for those moments.

If you love atmospheric fantasy, the fairy of deep woods and creatures seen out of the corner of the eye, and rules of Story that tend towards bittersweet loss, quiet balances, and the undramatic drift of time, I recommend this book very highly. Patience is required, as Little, Big refuses to be read quickly and Crowley's use of language works best when savored. If, on the other hand, you're looking for a clear plot, a conclusion that wraps up all the loose ends, or comprehensible explanations of a world, I expect you'll be frustrated. Personally, I'm torn; I loved the atmosphere but felt impatient and frustrated by the style. Still, I will remember this one for a long time.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-03-26

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