“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.