John Crowley, Little, Big (1981)

little-big2The last book from my Summer Reads list, winner of the World Fantasy Award, nominated for Hugo, Nebula and Locus for 1982. I actually had it all summer, and started reading it, bit by bit, sometime in September. But it’s a huge book, 538 pages in really small print, and I managed to finish it only recently (a couple of weeks ago, to be precise). In some respects it reminded me, albeit only vaguely, of Tim Powers. There is that similar sense of uncanny in the real world, hidden in plain sight, not mentioned or noticed simply because most people don’t have the necessary apparatus (both physical and mental) to find it out. However, in more respects Little, Big reminded me of Susanna Clarke and her brick of a book, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Crowley’s work is similarly meandering and slow, and pacing itself with infinite patience (which I, regrettably, don’t possess :P). But it’s also somehow… accruing, contrary to Clarke’s novel, where things just happen in a given order; accruing not as much in the area of action (there’s almost none), but more in the sphere of sense. It actually builds itself up from the foundations set in the beginning – explaining the inexplicable, casting light on the shadows that seemed impenetrable – which, slowly and incrementally, makes the final result all the more appealing.

As you can see, that long and meandering style is contagious. I will try to keep my sentences short from now on, but I can’t vouch for the success of this endeavor :).

Little, Big is a story of one family touched by a familiarity with fae. They are singled out, chosen, for better or worse, but they don’t know why. They don’t even bother to know why; the sole fact is enough. We trace their individual and collective fates through three generations, witnessing growth and decay, faith and disbelief, little dramas and little moments of joy. Crowley paints a picture of a typical family; something straight from a really boring soap opera which forgot to include murderous uncles, hidden mad daughters or dead bodies in the closet. The only thing that sets them apart from thousands of other impoverished rural families of the time (beginning of the XXth century in the U.S.) is the Fairy. Somehow (and that’s the key word in Crowley’s book), Somehow their fates have been entangled with the dealings of fae. Somehow, they have been granted small favors  and burdened with much heavier sorrows. Some of the family members resented the link, some of them didn’t believe it at all, but none would ask why it existed, or how to end it. Fae as a natural disaster; that’s surely an intriguing way of looking at the supernatural :). Especially when juxtaposed with the outside world, in which the economical crisis looms ever bigger on the horizon, when poverty and lack of light and tyranny seem as inevitable as winter storm. Yeah, you got it – there is a tyrant in the U.S., a very peculiar one at that – red-haired, with supernatural help and history longer than thought possible (spoiler alert! I must admit, the explanation of how a certain Roman Empire ruler came to the XXth century U.S. is a very elegant one, and very alluring too – the stories of sleeping kings and knights always held a special charm to me).

But, contrary to the soap operas, Crowley’s long, rambling story has an end. It’s a bitter-sweet one, very melancholy, and very intriguing – that is, if you still have the wits about you to be able to ponder it after putting the book away. I won’t spoil it, suffice to say that it has considerable philosophical and metaphysical implications for the whole world built by the author of the Little, Big.

Despite my snarky opening remarks, I enjoyed Little, Big quite a lot. It’s written in an elegiac, graceful style, with masterful understatement and truly enviable lyrical precision. It’s slow pace has its own peculiar appeal, provided that you’re willing to be swayed by it and to let yourself immerse in the strange world painted by Crowley with pastel, washed-out colors. The tone of this book is both whimsical, fantastical and matter-of-fact, as if what we read was a curious mix of social drama and a fairy tale. The language suits this tone perfectly, at the same time precise and poetic, with just a hint of emotional detachment so characteristic for an omniscient narrator.

The worldbuilding is masterful, with a lot of thought and effort put into making it as realistic as possible. The rules of our world apply to everything – even to the Fairy, and the explanation of Fairy physics is both befuddling and illuminating (once you get over the complex convolutions of Crowley’s – at this one point slightly excessively poetic – language ;)). The characters… I must confess, it took me a while to get attached to them in any way; to some of the main characters I have remained indifferent to the very end, which is slightly sad, considering the role Crowley conceived for them in the end. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, no less :). But this can’t be helped, Auberon and Sylvie simply bored me to death. I very much preferred the story of Smoky and Daily Alice, true and painfully real even though – or maybe because – theirs was the story line with the tiniest amount of supernatural in the whole Little, Big. Auberon’s arc, tearful and melodramatic, felt more flat and lifeless than the soap opera scenarios he wrote for the TV. Sylvie… I didn’t give a damn about her, one way or the other. Her glorious Destiny seemed something contrived and artificial. To be fair, it’s no easy feat, breathing life into the oldest and most worn cultural theme of all – eternal, tragic love – but, at least for me, Crowley failed at it entirely. One of the reasons I have read it for such a long time was the break I had to take when Auberon began his moping.

Still, I haven’t read it for the romance content 😛 (And that’s another reason for the break – it became too important part of the book for my liking). And when Little, Big winds down toward the end, it truly soars and reaches artistic peaks. Elegant and subtle, intellectually satisfying, emotionally complete – what more could you want? I, being a fickle and picky creature, in this one case would like a bit less – a few dozen to a hundred pages less would be just perfect 🙂 But as it is, it’s very good.

Score: 8/10

One thought on “John Crowley, Little, Big (1981)

  1. piotrek

    Sounds nice 🙂 This is on of the books waiting for me on my shelf and I’m in no hurry, but I strongly suspect I’ll enjoy it very much. This kind of book takes time, but rewards the reader immensely…


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