I’m a sucker for good books about Faery. There, I said it. Some of my favorite reads from the past few years have been Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and, of course, Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock. Something about that other world, with its cast of characters, its rigid rules, and its enchantment, calls to me. So I expected to like Little, Big, by John Crowley; I knew it was about Faery, and I knew Michael Dirda loved it, and that was enough for me to pick it up.
I didn’t realize that I was about to pick up a masterpiece. This is the stunning, lyrical story of a family that has grown and blossomed in seclusion and protection. It’s the story of a house that is many houses that are a door. Thanks to the seclusion, the protection, and the door, the family is close to the fairy kingdom; perhaps closer than even they suspect.
Close, but not quite there. This book, more than anything else, is about yearning, about an emptiness in the human spirit that can never quite be filled. Despite the fact that everyone in the Barnable family seems to know about the entities that surround them, nothing is ever explicit: assumptions are unspoken, everything is unseen, just out of sight, around the corner, at the moment of disappearance. Just like the fairies themselves. And though longing is fatal (one of the many repeated phrases of the book), it’s impossible not to want more. There is example after example of this: paths that seem to lead to the center really lead away; the farther in you go, the bigger something gets; things are bigger than they look, or look smaller than they are. The things that make us happy make us wise, goes the saying, and the corollary is also true in this book: the things that make us unhappy make us foolish. And all of this is part of the Tale, and the world is how it is and not otherwise.
Little, Big is full of power, beauty, and mystery as the story unfolds, one generation after another, of two worlds intersecting, two peoples or races or elements (it’s never made clear) coming together for a while. It’s impossible to understand the fairies; they are neither just nor kind nor malicious, because their interests are completely other, as the interests of a rock or flounder or molecule of air would be different, could we know them. It’s Crowley’s skill that he makes this mystery, this cloud of unknowing, into a book of tenderness, sublime beauty, love, and yearning. Many of his scenes have a sense of rightness about them that made me say, oh, yes, of course, that’s how it would be — and then step back, wondering. References from other books that have dealt with these worlds — Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame, C.S. Lewis, George Macdonald — peek from his pages. Wry humor surprises you. And even at the end, with the sense of wrenching loss and heartache, there is a sense of hope and rebirth.
If you can bear a book in which not everything is resolved, in which not every reference is explained, in which much is left unspoken, then read Little, Big. It’s one of the most beautiful, mysterious, literally enchanting books of fantasy I’ve ever read.