Little, Big

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.

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24 Responses to Little, Big

  1. Eva says:

    I read this back in 2008 and really loved it! Like you, once I’d finished it I knew I’d be rereading it some day. :)

  2. You know, I’m so glad you posted this. I bought this book almost two years ago because my former thesis director said it’s his favorite book, and I trust his judgment. But I couldn’t get into it. It is still on my bedside table, but you’ve definitely inspired me to pick it up again. Thanks for the review! And thanks for starting it in that manner.

    • Teresa says:

      It took me a little while too, partly because I was reading it when I was tired and was trying to read it in short bursts. It was much better once I could devote some long stretches of time to it. That’s my suggestion if you try again.

  3. Stefanie says:

    I’ve had this on my tbr pile for years but haven’t gotten around to it because it is so darn fat. I think it’s getting to be about time I make the effort to fit it into my reading schedule.

    • Teresa says:

      It is a chunkster, but I love those :) And as I told Jenn, this is one to reserve long stretches of time for. The catch-as-catch-can approach was no good at all for me.

  4. Jenny says:

    I know a few people like that. :) I’m on a project of slowly reading all Crowley’s work, and after that I’ll re-read. No hurry.

    I am so glad you liked this! I think the parts with the changeling are the most haunting for me, but the entire book is startlingly gorgeous. Any author who can make you nostalgic for something that never existed is ace in my book.

    • Teresa says:

      Do you know? And who might those people be? I can’t imagine ;)

      I liked the changeling a lot, too, and the parts with Auberon and Sylvie. I don’t know if I’ll read more Crowley anytime soon. I kind of want to read this again and get my mind more thoroughly wrapped around it first.

  5. Wendy says:

    I loved The Children’s Book and Sea of Poppies – and I agree with you that the best books are often the ones that take the most time. This book sounds like one I would love and I’m adding it to my wish list on your recommendation! Thank you!

    • Teresa says:

      Wonderful! I hope you enjoy it. It was well worth the extra mental effort, just as the Ghosh and Byatt were. (Have you read River of Smoke yet? I’m at the top of the library holds list now, so I’m hoping to get it soon.)

      • Wendy says:

        I bought River of Smoke – but probably won’t crack the spine until next month due to some review books that I have to read first. I am SO excited to read it!

  6. gaskella says:

    I read this book back in the early 80s, when I read mostly SF & Fantasy – I don’t think I quite ‘got it’ back then, but I didn’t get rid of it – something in me recognised it was a keeper for reading again … now I shall have to dig it out thanks to your super review.

    • Teresa says:

      There’s a lot I didn’t get, but it was all so interesting that I want to get back to it. I’ll be interested to see if it gels more for you on a second read.

  7. I love what you say here about one’s attitude toward the idea of existing within a story, and how that affects the way one lives one’s life. And the contrast between conceptualizing one’s story as ending, versus forever open-ended. Intriguing! The fairies are maybe a little off-putting to me, yet I’m strongly tempted to try this book out.

    • Teresa says:

      Don’t let the fairies put you off. It’s hardly a fairy story at all (although I’m not one to mind fairy stories, FWIW). The fairies are more of a vehicle for exploring all those questions I mentioned, and more. I’d be very interested in what you think of this.

  8. Chris says:

    Your review has convinced me that I need to find a copy of this book and give it a go. The comparison to Byatt means a lot to me, as I pretty much worship at the altar of all-things Byatt. ;-) Great posting! Cheers! Chris

  9. Emily, I have imagined that this books was written as the result of a dare – “No one can write a great book about fairies!” Drunken Crowley: “I can do it!”

    Crowley has a blog and is a friendly fellow, online at least.

    Anyone who does not have a copy of the book already, or who has the crummy QPB club edition I have, may want to think about this beauty.

  10. Gavin says:

    This is one of my favorites and you have inspired me to read it again!

  11. sakura says:

    I remember reading Jenny’s review of this book and put it on my wishlist. I still haven’t read it yet, but I really mean to! I like that you feel you’ve only scratched the surface.

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