You know how some people are difficult to get to know, but once you do, they become your favorite people in the world? Maybe on your first meeting, they don’t have much to say, but they’re intriguing. Maybe a friend introduced you, or perhaps they say just a couple of things on your first meeting that make you take notice. I think books can be like that. They’re captivating right from the start, but they don’t give up their secrets easily. They take time and maybe a little work. Some of my favorite books in recent years, particularly The Children’s Book and Sea of Poppies, fall into that category. Now Little, Big by John Crowley joins them.
Little, Big came to me through Jenny’s recommendation; she read it in the early days of our blog and wrote a rave review. That was enough to make me confident that this would be a worthwhile read, even if it took a little effort. The novel’s style reminded me strongly of A.S. Byatt The Children’s Book in that it is as much about atmosphere as about plot. Both books are multigenerational family tales, dealing with families whose relationships are not always easy to untangle. The biggest difference is that Byatt’s novel is set in Edwardian England and Crowley’s in the 20th-century U.S. Oh, and there are actual fairies in Crowley’s tale.
The Drinkwater/Barnable family has for generations had a mysterious, mostly whispered-about connection with the world of fairies. The young daughters of the family frolic in the nude with the fairies as their older brother Auberon photographs them, hoping for a glimpse of the beings he knows must be there. Later, a younger Auberon finds his namesake’s photographs and is fascinated by the hints of fairy, such as what looks like a thumb, but actual straight-on photos of fairy beings infuriate him and cause him to toss them all aside. Every character senses—and responds to—the connection differently, and very little about the fairies is ever clearly explained. It just is.
Yet living with fairies brings a set of rules, whether they’re overt or not. Family matriarch Violet Drinkwater reflects on the problem, when trying to determine how best to advice her son who is ready to strike out on his own:
“It’s very hard though, you know, to know a little, or to guess a little, and not want to—to help, or to see that things come out right; it’s hard not to be afraid, not to think some small thing—oh, the smallest—that you might do would spoil it…”
Isn’t this the dilemma of any life? The fear that something you do will spoil everything? Violet decides that the only way to live is to forget how high the stakes are and choose as best you can. So the whispers turn almost to silence, but silence doesn’t make things go away.
Like Byatt in The Children’s Book, Crowley uses the idea of story and what it means to be in a story. (This caught my attention partly because of Byatt, but also because of Stephen King’s Dark Tower books.) Some characters believe in stories with a beginning, middle, and end, and that they are part of a story. Others expect the story to go on and on, even if their own place in it ends. One character becomes a soap opera writer, and soap operas work in just that way. Storylines may begin and end, but the overarching story continues as the world—or the orrery—turns. Stories, too, have writers who engineered all the events. What does that mean? How does feeling like part of a story, guided by someone from “elsewhere,” affect one’s attitude about life and about death? Every character here answers this question little differently.
I feel like, on this first read, I’ve barely scratched the surface of this book. There were a lot of scenes that flew right over my head and more whose significance I couldn’t quite work out. But all the difficult bits felt right somehow. I feel confident that if I return to this book knowing where the story is going—and I intend to do that someday—I’ll see just how right those difficult bits were.